Still at it, here is my idea for Thursdays. Actually, it is decidedly not my idea, or rather the original form is not but the notion of using the concept on this blog is my own. Kudos me. Even if it’s microscopic. Thursday, in the spirit of a popular hashtag ‘Throwback Thursday’, will be devoted to sharing something previously written that might merit a fresh airing. Or might not. That is entirely up to your own opinion. Delighted or disgusted you can record comments and I promise I’ll embrace you. Here in my Half-Baked world we have a strictly no fights no bites policy.
This post was originally published in 2014.
When I was at school I learned French. In fact I began learning at the aged eight in Mrs Noble’s class. Mrs Noble liked me, having despised my older brother (the loathing was mutual). Given that I generally hated my brother (also mutual and absolutely compulsory at the ages we were), I loved Mrs Noble, which might have been why she liked me. Life is like that. We tend to like those that love us. Unless they are insane stalkers. But that really is another story.
I adored the sounds of the words and I enjoyed learning. At secondary school I was, to be fair, generally mediocre at the grammar and indeed only actually began to make friends with conjugating after moving here in September last year. But I perfected my accent and frankly I was waiting for the call to star in the remake of ‘Les Enfants de Paradis’, France’s 1943 answer to ‘Gone With The Wind’. I listened to Jane Birkin breathing her way through Je T’aimeMoi Non Plus and wanted to be her.
Adulthood and a cheese business that took me back and forth to Paris to the gastronomic chaos that is Rungis Market. Ad hoc travels to Provence, Normandy, The Auvergne in search of the perfect morceau to bear triumphantly back to Berkshire in the overstuffed boot of our car and present to our customers who would sigh in ecstasy and run home to devour their new best friend with gusto and self-congratulatory glee that they had found this ‘maaaarvlus little place’ which sold all things French-Cheese without their having to bother at all with la manche.
During all this time, I listened French. I loved the sound. Compare the way that airport is said in English – two clipped syllables uttered in a reasoned monotone – with the same word in French. L’aeroport. The aer has the lightness of a soufflé and that for me is French. That for me defines what I adore about the language. Of course regionally and even more microscopically the way words are pronounced, the way sentences are constructed, varies. Standard French, the same as BBC English is not the standard at all. My radio station of choice when out in my car and indeed in my home, now that I have discovered the joys of listening on-line to the wireless, is RBA 104.4 Bort les Orgues. The main reason for my slavish devotion is the woman I know as ‘Over Enunciating Announcer Lady’. She is bliss. When she does her petits annonces I am captivated by her emphasis. ‘PerDU, un beagLE tricoloooooR a Bort les OrgUH’ or even more deliciously the moment when behind the wheel shortly before Christmas I heard her utter ‘Soob Millie Mettre aRAY ….. a Champs sur TarentaiNUH’ and realized it was a shout out for The Husband with Two Brains’ presentation on trous noirs (Black Holes) and his observatory in Hawaii. Her fabulous iteration gilds my days and she has unwittingly helped my French from stuttering to fluttering over the last six months.
That moment driving to Lyon in April when I realized the strange sensation I was experiencing was seeing Spring burst forth to greet me with its bumptious greens and yellows and pinks and whites and mauves in great swathes before my eyes is replicated in my sudden ability to assimilate and respond to a barrage of French with relative ease. But even in areas with harsher tones the words have elegance to me. Somehow Tortue sounds so much more evocative than Tortoise particularly if you can perfect that mysterious swallowed ‘r’ that French babies absorb by osmosis in order to bewitch dull English girls like me later in life.
I have lived in Italy and speak decent Italian, I learned Russian for six years at school but for me French is candied grace and refinement. If it were a scent it would be captured in a bottle made of a glass so fragile that you would think it was a bubble. Even in Cantal where we live which forms part of the Auvergne region (now wed to Rhône-Alpes as one of the super-regions created during the panda-like François Hollande’s administration and where the accent is renowned as being the hardest to understand in France. Even for native French speakers. Say Grenoble. Gren. Oble. Now say it with a French accent (it is after all French). Can you hear the chicly swallowed G? The way the ble whispers away at the end? That’s French. I speak it comme une vache espagnole but I hear it fluently. And it is music in my ears.
PS: My title is taken from a song by the brilliant Tracy Chapman. She was Talkin’ Bout a Revolution – something else the French do rather well ….
It should be noted that this piece was originally written for a writing competition … it didn’t make the cut but I rather felt it worthy of a place here nonetheless …. you are free to agree or disagree or remain Swiss and neutral. And the photographs of mountains? For me learning the language is like walking in the mountains: sometimes the climbs seem endless and the struggle never ending, you feel you won’t ever reach the top, you feel the task impossible but when you turn the corner on the path and take stock of how far you have climbed and breath the air and survey that vista, the effort evaporates. And aside from that, I simply love them.
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
This giddying excitement is almost too much for a girl to take so I can’t imagine how you are coping! Here we are on the second Monday in a row and I’m still keeping the promise that I will devote each start of the week day to a post in the series chronicling the tale of our restoration of a former Medieval Watch Tower in Southern France.
Today, by way of wrapping up the satiating feast of retrospective posts I delivered last week, I thought I would write a little about the history as we now know it, which, it turns out, is rather different to the original tale we were told at the start of this neverending story.
When we first laid eyes on the reality of the place on a freezing cold late January day in 2013 we were assured that the tower, built in 1203, simply fell into neglect and disrepair over the years and the that villagers had, quite understandably, swiped what they fancied and upcycled it into their own abodes. Not so, mes braves. In fact the tower was wilfully destroyed at some point in the early 1790s when news filtered through that the revolution had brought down the Monarchy and flattenened (for a while) the old feudal systems, replacing them with a République that had no need for visible signs of the rule of church and king, hand in glove.
The correct name for the tower as it stood was ‘un tour seigneurial’. Ours was the first place built in what would become the village of Marcolès. It was inhabited by a feudal Lord who was, as in many cases, also the priest. After it was constructed, and satisfied that he could survey everything around him, a church was built, and then another. I think we can rest content that our Seigneur was a man of some excess. Two churches within what is a tiny city wall seems a trifle indulgent. Rather the medieval equivalent of those, so much richer than I, who bring out my most churlish streak by insisting on parading an endless array of unfeasibly expensive motor cars a single one of which would buy me a perfectly good house in which to live a quiet and unobtrusive life. At this time, the population was several thousand in the minuscule area that constitutes the walled ‘cité’ … these days in the whole commune, which is one of the largest in hectarage in the whole of Cantal, we number barely 500 in the village and all it’s hamlets. It must have been quite something.
The present Eglise de Saint Martin was built in the XVth Century and at that time was one of two churches surveyed by the Tour Seigneurial
Thus, during the revolution the tower was deliberately toppled but in fact much of it remained. To attic level for a little less than half of the building and up to first lintel height for the rest. My mind conjures an image of zealous villagers, positively inebriated with joy at the news of the fall of the Monarchy and the old-guard, advancing vigorously on that ancient and extremely sturdy construction and giving it utter hell for some while, bearing off their plundered stone with fervored delight. After the first flush of frenzied looting I imagine them losing steam, scratching weary heads and agreeing that honestly? Honestly, enough was enough, they’d done their bigger than needed bit and shrugging they retired to a hostelry to congratulate themselves over jugs of rough red wine. Vive la France! Now to get on with the important things. It’s entirely imagined and wholly affectionate, but I have a sneaky feeling there might be a bitty grain of truth in the notion.
Fireworks at the village fête de quinze août represent the fervour of the revolution
It should be noted that by now there was a fine chateau called les Poux, built in the early 17th Century which had hopped about between owners as such places often did at the effect of tussles and scurmishes but which, hold the thought, had been snaffled by Huguenots early on. By 1666 as London fried to cinders, its lethal combustion blamed for ever on an unfortunate baker who, in turn, protested his innocence for the rest of his life, yes, as London blazed, the present owners were already the incumbant lairds. I find this significant. It means that they escaped with their heads intact as the villagers, enraged and full of hope that the rich would no longer dictate to them, razed the tower that stood as a symbol of all things archaic and readied themselves for their brave new world.
The tree-lined avenue at Les Poux and a view back to the village from it’s land last winter
In the early 1820s that same sassy seigneur decided something should be done about, what must have been something of an eyesore in the middle of the village. It was surely safe to pop his head above the parapet by this time since the Republic had been abolished in 1804 in the run up to Napoleon declaring himself Emperor. This is not a French history lesson but suffice to say we are, at present, languishing in the fifth Republic of France and that 1824, which is credited as the year this chap decided it was safe to rebuild, was nestled neatly between the first and second. I rather think he thanked God himself for the fact that he still had a head. I think this not because I am harboring pious thoughts but rather because what he did, was to order the building you see now, but not as a house. Instead he created a hospice. Nursing nuns were installed to tend to the sick of the parish and to debilitated nuns from their Mother Priory in Aurillac which lies about 25 km North East of Marcolès and was, and still is, the most important town in the close area. In fact these days it is the préfecture, county town if you will, of le Cantal.
The priory still stands in Aurillac though these days it is occupied as apartments. Gerbert of Aurillac became France’s first Pope in 946 AD declaring his papal name to be, rather splendidly, Sylvester II
The nuns worked gently and serenely, one hopes, for the rest of the century administering to the needy. In 1914 as yet another war, that war that was to end all war, which I still find the most tragic epithet of all time, seered and permanently scarred the fields of Northern France, they departed. I have much research still to do, but I imagine that, skilled as they were, they were summoned to tend the wounded and maimed boys despatched as cannon fodder from France and around the globe. The building became empty and silent.
In 1917 another bevy of revolutionaries, this time in Russia unleashed hellfire on the Czar and aristocracy. They overthrew their own feudal rulers and a chaotic bloodbath ensued. That is the nature of revolution. Sitting and intellectualizing its manner and outcome is fine and dandy but the reality will take it’s own messy course peppered with unknowns and unthought ofs. Some years earlier the daughter of the Chateau les Poux had been dispatched to Russia to be governess to an unfeasibly rich family. She loved her Russian life, took to it like a little French duckling to water and had no intention of ever returning to the middle of no-where-land to pass her days as a spinster. That French was the first language of high-born Russians at the time and that all things French were considered to be the most elegant and sort after of treasures amongst the wealthy, explains why she would have been an appealing appendage to the family she served. It was actually very common for well-educated desmoiselles who had been unsuccessful in securing a husband, leaving all around them scratching their heads and wondering what on earth to DO with such an embarrassment, to be floated discretely off to Russia to live the fine life as an educator of the children in that strange limbo that governesses inhabited – something between family member and servant. 1917 therefore must have come as a colossal blow to her …. the family would necessarily have packed hastily and in their own chaos pointed her back towards France on the turn of a sixpence. All fine and dandy. Except of course France was at bloody and terrible war. Take a moment to imagine what her journey might have been like over sea, overland and eventually, in heaven knows what state, returning to the familial home in far-flung, and blissfully erased from her mind, southern France.
What we do know is that she turned up at Les Poux and was soon installed in the now empty Maison Carrée as it afterwards became known. There are still people who remember her. She habitually wore long, rather old fashioned clothes complete with astrokhan or fur-trimmed coat sweeping the floor, her unusual height exentuated by a tall velvet or fur toque depending on the season. She was a forbidding woman by all accounts and insisted on speaking Russian even though no-one understood a word she was saying. I rather fancy that when this apperition turned up at the bucolic chateau, her sister-in-law ordered her husband to get rid of her, and that is why he cunningly requisitioned the house for her, given it was conveniently empty of nuns. Wholly unsurprising that she was what the French call un peu spécial, which translates as odd, weird or barking mad depending on context. Poor love, she was sent to Russia, fell in love with the place and who knows, maybe with a beau too, only to have to rudely flee for her life back to a place that was less than welcoming and which by then had little to do with who she had evolved into. I have a huge fascination with her, not least because I too, am frequently the lankiest bird in plain site and am, undeniably foreign. Not forgetting odd. If the toque fits, I’m happy to wear it ….
Our not-Russian Russian lady lived in the house til her death, around the time that I was born, when it was inherited by a woman, widowed or divorced, no-one can remember which, and which fact I find quite charmingly indicative of the lack of busybodiness that is part of the fabric of being French. But whichever had rendered her alone she had two daughters and was, in some way yet to be discovered, related to those pesky poux. On her death the house was sold to the aberration of a man who preceded us in tenure, his wife and their two daughters. Therefore, since the destruction of the tower and it’s rebirth in 1824, my husband is only the second man to have resided there. I am comfortable that, wherever he registers on the eccentricity richter scale and which I am far too decorus to have an opinion on, he is also the only vaguely sane man ever to have lived in the building since the Revolution of 1789.
Finally Cast your minds back to the early 17th century. I mentioned the Huguenots. I have spoken before about my father-in-law, cheese guru and eccentric delight. His name was Patrick Rance. Therefore my name, since he was my father-in-law was also Rance at that time. In fact, had I not chosen to revert to my maiden name after that husband and I terminated our matrimonial bond, I would have been Mme Rance at the time I first set foot in Marcolès. The name is Huguenot. It derives from de Rance, a family of that provenance who lived in southern France. The river that Marcolès is built above is called la Rance. Sometimes, things just feel as though they are meant to be …..
PS: The quote is Alan Bennett from his glorious play ‘The History Boys’ :
“The best moments in reading are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things – which you had thought special and particular to you. Now here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out and taken yours.”
Discovering the history of this place feels exactly like that. Even though it is not written in the conventional sense, so much of it is being pieced together from scraps of records and jumbles of recollections often told by extremely old people, we feel led towards it by the hand. And the hand undeniably belongs to la Maison Carrée
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
If you have been with me a little while you may recall that I moved to a rather palatial temporary home in Grenoble in February and that I knew I would have to give it up at the beginning of July. That time has come and in discussion with the local fire brigade, I have conceded that chaining myself to the stunning ornate pillars in the drawing room and refusing to move will simply be undignified, probably messy and not at all couth. A teeny bit reluctantly, therefore, in a few hours I will close the door on this lovely interlude and very soon I will share what happens next. In the meantime though, and given that it is summer and collective thoughts turn to high days and holidays, I thought a little less taxing on you might be to run a series of photographs accompanying poems, prose or lyrics that never fail to snare my heart and noose my soul. Those which effortlessly conjure emotions and tempt my teeny-tiny brain to shimmy into something resembling coherence.
The first offering is this, a picture, taken more than three years ago in the north of le Cantal in the village that was then home and to whence I will head later today before decamping to the south of le Cantal to check on our seemingly endless renovation of a tiny square house.
It seemed then, as now, to evoke this beautiful poem by a favourite amongst of all favourite poets …
He Wishes For The Cloths of Heaven
HAD I the heavens’ embroidered cloths, Enwrought with golden and silver light, The blue and the dim and the dark cloths Of night and light and the half-light, I would spread the cloths under your feet: But I, being poor, have only my dreams; I have spread my dreams under your feet; Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.
William Butler Yeats
PS: The title comes from Wordsworth’s brilliant definition of poetry that it is ‘the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility’
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. Lesfaux 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 ….
The Bean is a well travelled dog. Her mileage by road and air (and a little by rail) is boggling for such a small canine. To facilitate her cross-border maraudings she has to abide by rules and she holds a European Pet Passport which logs her necessary vaccinations and rabies shots and, if she wants to visit the country of her birth, it registers the worming tablet demanded by the British to be administered not less than 24 hours and not more than 120 before travel by a certified veterinarian. To partake of this delight, we toddle chez le veterinaire in our nearest town and the vet jokes with her that it is just a little French sweetie (she is bored with the joke, has been since the first time when she discovered the depth of the lie) and with me that it is ironic that he, a Frenchman, takes money (35€) from me, an Englishwoman to allow my British dog to travel to our own country. I smile my beatific smile and nod and wonder why it is necessary at all and count my blessings that I don’t have to be wormed as well.
Yesterday, we pottered into the ‘Cabinet Veterinaire’ a little after 9 and were greeted warmly and asked to take a seat. The newly upgraded surgery is bright and cheerful with a row of radiant yellow alternating with dazzling orange plastic chairs and a vast and jubilant tub of plastic plants in the centre. I sat remembering the last time The Bean and I were in that spot in August. A frail old man, driven by his strapping hard muscled from hard work 30-something grandson struggled to carry his best friend, a sheepdog once bursting with energy now simply desiccated with age, into the surgery. They were expected and were ushered silently straight into the treatment rooms. I waited a while and then took The Beligerent Bean in for her vile pill which she spat out a few times to keep the vet on his toes, as is her custom, whilst he made his joke about the irony of it all and I attempted to be beatific but achieved instead a handsome grimace. Afterwards I stepped back into the reception to pay my bill and there was the old man his grandson standing sentinel next to him as he pulled his chequebook out to pay for the demise of his best friend. Cheque written, the lovely lady who presides cheerfully and appropriately over her domain began to explain what would happen to the dog and the old fellow shook his head and signalled his young protector to take the details. He simply couldn’t and wouldn’t take in any more. I caught his eye and said ‘I am sorry for your loss’. He crouched on his creaking haunches and caressed The Bean, told her she was beautiful and such a goooood girl in cracked gutteral Auvergnat French which takes years to tune into accurately even if you are a Parisien. He looked up, the depth of sorrow in his eyes so cavernous that I could not hope to reach the bottom and he thanked me. Thanked ME. The grace of ordinary humans never ceases to astound me. Never.
Just ahead of us yesterday was an old lady. Immaculately turned out in her best coat and shoes, shoes that have seen service for as many decades as I have taken breath, I would vouch, mended, remended, polished and serviceable, a scarf draped at the neck she was as pale as moonlight in midwinter. She had arrived in a taxi driven by a young woman of similar age to the grandson in summer. In the interests of lightening this sombre piece I will tell you that our local taxi firm is magnificently named ‘Taxi Willy’ which obviously makes a girl born in England quiver like an ill-set jelly as I stifle my inevitable sniggers. The driver was deferential and warm as she looked after her passenger who was as stiff as a board not in hostility but in the way of someone holding herself together because she must. I surmise that this young woman drives the lady often. Taxis (Willy’s taxis) are the only means of transport for a woman widowed who doesn’t drive and lives probably some miles from town. It’s the nature of rural life when bus services cease to operate because we all have at least one car. All of us that matter. It’s the nature of being left behind in the place that you have always lived as it sheds it’s young to the cities and quietly erodes around you. She was nestling her cat when they went in to see the vet. When they came out some 10 minutes later there was no cat. The vet, a lady explained to the woman the different options for cremation (the French word is ‘Incineration’ which to English speaking ears is jarring and rather unfeeling) …. she listened, she acknowledged, she fumbled in her handbag for her purse and the driver gently helped her find the money to pay. She walked to the taxi and she climbed stiffly into the backseat and as they drove away I was struck by the enormity of her holding herself together. I imagined the young woman seeing her into her silent home. Making sure she was comfortable, offering to drop in and see her later. And I imagined her, coatless and tiny walking to her chair as the taxi drove away, allowing herself to shed the tears that no man nor woman outside of her house must ever see. And I thought of us all preparing for the holidays, the hubub of excitement, the coiled spring of anticipation of the gluttonous festivities, the plethora of brilliant sparkling lights lifting our spirits high, the overspending and the overeating and the overdrinking and the overmerrying. And I thought how dreadfully sad it is to be on your own with your companion about to be incinerated and your life spent. And I thought of the dignity of the old man, the ramrod buttoned up stoicism of the old woman and the kindness paid back by the muscular vital grandson and the paid taxi driver. Nothing will make up for losing those best friends, I can hope that new best friends arrive to comfort them but life trickles away and it is so easy in this time of overindulgence to forget. So I care to remember.
And my picture, offered in response to the Photo Challenge titled ‘Anticipation’ is The Greedy Bean anticipating cheese when we were picnicing on a hike last winter. Pulling tongues, she assumes is cute and she always stands on her hind legs when anticipating these delectable morsels prompting me to almost title this piece ‘Stand Up, stand Up for Cheeses’ as a nod to the Sally Army and their wonderful work at this time of the year. Her anticipation, by the way, is always gratified just as the shadow of a sheepdog and the cherished cat were. She, like they, is a good best friend. You can indulge in all the other dandy entries to the gallery here.
PS: Two Brains remarked after yesterday’s poignant encounter that it is so easy to be a little scornful and supercillious of people’s relationship to their animals but that the sad vignette finely illustrates the enormous importance that our domestic pets have in the lives of others and of us. Later, wading through an enormous 5-course lunch including wine and coffee for the princely sum of 13€ each, the door of the Auberge burst open with the force of a hurricane but accompanied by no bitter wind and the light seemed to briefly dim as a leviathan with shaven head, sporting khaki t-shirt to expose his magnificent tatoo-adorned muscular arms and hunting trousers with a pair of positively combatitive laced boots and hefty leather and chrome belt to stash his beefing blades strode in and over to his fragrant, coiffed and chicly attired wife waiting decorously for him. In the arms of this middle-aged goliath snuggled the tiniest Yorkshire Terrier, born with such tenderness and passed to his spouse with a care normally reserved for a scrunched up new-born and the identical kiss to the teeny canine forehead bestowed before he let his precious bundle go. Comic and touching all in one we found it hard not to stare like a pair of uncouth Pinnochios.
And because it’s Christmas and the title has no relevance whatsoever, being, as it is, stolen from Frank N Furter in Richard O’Brien’s now legendary ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show’ as he makes his raucous entrance to the unfettered alarm of the stranded Brad and Janet, here is Tim Curry to play us out as I wish you the Happiest Holidays, le plus bon fête de Noël or the Merriest Christmas depending on where in the world you are. ‘I see you shiver with antici…..pation!’
At various points in my life I have described myself as a ‘cat herder’. Herding cats being, if you are idle enough to dwell on the issue, a thankless and almost impossible task. At times it has been part of my job and at other times it has been part of my role as a mummy and surrogate mummy to whoever was clinging to whichever of my children (and there were usually multiple clutches of them) at that particular time. I find that a combination of drill Sergeant Major and free-wheeling hippy chicky does the trick a treat.
In the summer of 2015 I was asked to reprise this role – to give a one off performance of ‘The Cat Herder’ to an audience of lightning fanciers and experts and interested amateurs from all over the world in Aurillac. Aurillac is the capital (or prefecture) of Cantal and is known throughout France as the coldest town in the country. This is because the weather girls and boys on all channels and in the newspapers always have the lowest temperature on any day listed as Aurillac so therefore it must be true … hold that thought.
The meeting was to last two days and HB2 and I plus The essential Bean arrived the night before and checked into our dog friendly hotel. Not an issue since so many hotels are dog friendly in France and in fact most cafés and restaurants bat not the merest graceful eyelash at the dog dining with you. Particularly tiny dogs like ours. This makes The Bean fully portable and no hindrance to our lives whatsoever. Since we were eating en masse with the entire posse of delegates and organisers we left her snuggled in her basket dreaming of Bean things and enjoyed our evening immensely.
The following day I hit the ground hell for leather, checking everyone in, making sure those that hadn’t paid in full before the event opened their moth-eaten wallets and placed their owings in my ultra-efficient paw, setting up the refreshments and generally acting the part of the elegant swan to perfection. Swans, we know, paddle frantically but invisibly and glide their impeccable glide with an unparalleled serenity. Hold that thought too.
The fly in the ointment was the fact that this gleaming conference facility, the pride of Aurillac and contained in their Centre de Congrès had a large and prominent no dogs sign – one of those with an emphatic diagonal line through the offending pooch. We asked if they really meant it. For example most of the newly refurbished small airports in France have these signs but you will find there are hounds and houndettes strolling around unpeturbed in all of them – in fact The Bean is entranced with airports in France because she tends to be fêted royally by passengers, crews and sundry workers alike which she considers, quite understandably, is her right. They did mean it. They really, really did mean it so we had no choice but to leave her in the hotel with me running up and down stairs at frequent intervals and hightailing it to our staying quarters to air her. Believe me this was not the plan – worrying about the dog whilst herding all these cats was unequivocally NOT the plan. Unfortunately the might of Two Brains’ intellect was one of the star attractions of the show so he was required to sit and look brilliant and wise throughout all the presentations and ask pithy questions in English and French of the presenters. Me, I’m just the tea girl. I know my place. Cast your mind back a couple of paragraphs. Aurillac is the coldest place in France so leaving The Bean in the hotel room was no more than a mere inconvenience, surely. Except that it isn’t at all cold (well in winter it can be pretty nippy, downright chilly and even positively freezeling because it is in the mountains) … in fact the daytime temperature those two days hit 45°C (thats 113°F). So quite warm. Not thermal underwear weather. Not knitted mittens weather. Not even nylons weather. And certainly not weather to have a dog cooped up anywhere and mostly not in a hotel room which unlike the conference facility did not boast even a ceiling fan, let alone air conditioning. I have seldom passed such an anxious time. We got through it, of course we did. I found a little square round the corner with nice shady trees and took her to sit (and be fêted by sundry locals) every hour and I kept her watered. I think brittle would be the best word to describe me as I herded those cats to perfection for hours on end back and forth to the restaurant for lunch and dinner, dolling out the refreshments which they seemed to destroy like a plague of locusts in minutes flat at every break and all the while smiling my rapturous smile, inclining my head graciously, gliding my silky glide, giving of my famed shimmy and schmooze and wishing I was somewhere else entirely.
The end of the conference, the end of the longest two days of my entire life, was marked with a gala reception and the guest of honour was the fourth most important man in France. The Mayor of Aurillac who has a particular interest in Science was also on the guest list. And of course all the delegates from all over the world. They were each presented with a lovely box of Cantalien goodies and the food laid out on the long tables looked achingly beautiful – salver after salver of exquisite bite-sized confections savoury and sweet, and the champagne on ice waiting to be poured by the equally exquisite and immaculately uniformed team of young servers their beatific faces never flickering from that porcelain expression that sits between inscrutable and the merest flicker of a smile and had clearly been drilled into them by the rather forebidding and hawk-like bloke in charge. I don’t think he had ever smiled. I don’t think he actually had ever wanted to smile, for smiling surely would be a foolish fripperie and not something to waste ones life on when one had important functions to preside over and guests to skillfully intimidate if they fell short of ones exacting and giddyingly high standards – none shall pass but the most hallowed and they shall be obsequiously attended to and with aplomb so that all the lesser mortals need only look on and dream that they too might one day be so elevated.
We waited and we waited and we waited. The tired delegates, most of whom were not French did not understand why we waited. And to be frank neither did I. I asked the hawk-eyed witherer and I swear he dessicated me on the spot with the most epically condescending yet oh so fleeting glare of my entire life and, lips barely flickering as he murmured his patronising finest, he explained that in France you cannot start proceedings until the guest of honour arrives. And the guest of honour was the fourth most important man in France. I went wearily downstairs with Ferdinand (a rather goat-like German who had been part of the organising team for reasons that escape me). Ferdinand is a ladies man. He flirted tirelessly and I ignored him tiredly. Every so often I went upstairs to report that I had nothing to report. We waited and we waited and we waited and, if I may be candid the heat, the lack of food (I had been serving refreshments, not eating them for that is the Cat Herders remit) and possibly dehydration which would have certainly been rectified with a glass of bubbly but the bubbles couldn’t be popped without the all important presence of the fourth most important man in France. I became silently hysterical and not a little delirious. And then I spotted him. A man on a bike weaving his purposeful way towards the building. He dismounted and removed his bicycle clips placing them in the breast pocket of his, admittedly rather elegant whisper grey shirt and chained his bike carefully to the front of the building and smoothed down his undoubtedly snazzy designer black jeans. I usually pride myself on picking up on clues. This day my inner Marple had abandoned me – presumably a victim of evaporation brought on by the heat. He entered the building. I spoke up. I admit I shouldn’t have. Hindsight is not wonderful. It is painfully embarrassing. I asked him, with a little twinkle of irony in my tone if he might be the fourth most important man in France. No, he replied. I’m the mayor of Aurillac. The ground failed to swallow me up and Ferdinand who up to that point had been an irritant became my hero as he swept the aforementioned and understandably disgruntled mayor up and took him up the equally sweeping staircase. Minutes later Ferdinand reappeared and as if by magic, so did the enormous black car bearing two of the most glamourous and chic women I have EVER seen in my life and the fourth most important man in France. I remained stoically silent. I may never learn but I seldom repeat the same mistake in the same evening. Seldom I said. Not never. Fortunately this was a seldom night. Ferdinand greeted the VIP and his entourage and then introduced me ‘this is Mme B – she’s the head of diplomacy for the organisation’ …. levity has never been more welcome.
And don’t ask me who this fellow was … I never discovered. He’s the fourth most important man in France – why on earth would I need to know more than that …. after all I’m just the Cat Herder and I know my place.
The compulsary PS: You might be wondering given the story above why I have picked this picture of random rocks. I have a logic. The picture is of a Chaos Basaltique in Cantal …. the area is volcanic and strewn with reminders of that heritage in such formations which are left over when the basalt columns known coloquially as ‘Organ Pipes’ collapse and fling their broken pieces seemingly randomly in rivers of brittle rock. I love stumbling on them. This one is at Landeyrat and was the high spot of a most enraging hike two years ago.
The title comes from Anaïs Nin …. it appears in one of her umpteen journals – she was prolific, writing every day in volume after volume from girlhood until her death. The chaos in the picture is fertile with plants and lichen and mosses so her words seem to fit nicely. And I happen to agree with her … chaos can be fertile – as a seasoned Cat Herder, I should know.
Later, Osyth added this bonus in response to a question from a reader as to what a Cat Herder actually is:
Those of you familiar with my nonsense will know that I refer to my spouse as The Husband with Two Brains or HB². But he has another moniker, one that arose when he wasn’t even in the same country as the protagonist, let alone the same room.
Some while ago, probably 6 months after I moved to France, I was taking coffee with Raymond (adopt French accent, for he is indeed a proud Frenchman). Raymond came into world of HB² quite by chance some 20 years ago. A knock on his office door, a frantic colleague needing help with someone he suspected to be a Frenchman who had appeared uninvited in the lab. Under gentle interrogation it transpired that Raymond had spent all his savings on a single air fare to New York in pursuit of an Astronomy Professor that he particularly admired. He being, at the time, a student and general helper at the Astronomy faculty in Nice. Picked up by the Police wandering aimlessly, he somehow persuaded them to put him on the Amtrak to Boston from where he found his way to Harvard and there the story brought him into my husband’s orbit. Struck by his tenacity, his extraordinary affinity with the night-sky, which is akin to the ancient astronomers who first mapped and tried to understand the world beyond our globe, and touched by his desire to learn, my husband took him in and found him work in his lab. Eighteen months later he returned to France to complete a degree having finally accepted that to be taken seriously in the world of Astronomy and Astrophysics, Cosmology and all the attendent highbrow orbits he fancied dabbling in, he must have a degree. Since that time, Raymond remains devoted to Two Brains and I would suggest with some reason.
Back to the café where I had enjoyed a coffee and a chat with the same Raymond and asked his advice. I was concerned about my husband at the time for reasons I now fail to remember – living lives separated by 3,000 miles nurtures anxiety, or at least that has been my experience. As we stood to say our au revoirs, Raymond clasped me by the shoulders and, as he faire les emphatic bises (the air-kiss-kiss we do in France but with supplementary vigour to impart fortitude), declared that my husband is really un cochon rouge – a red pig. I queried this with a smile intended to make me the fool and a gentle ‘quoi?’ and he repeated ‘il est un petit cochon rouge’ – so in fact not just any red pig , but a small red pig. My husband stands almost 6′ and though of light and lean frame is not one to ever be described as little, particularly in France where most men are of, let’s say more concise hauteur. Including Raymond. To be doubly belt and braces sure that I understood him Raymond then announced in English ‘he is a red pig, a small red pig’.
Later that evening on the phone to The Brains I asked him, having Googled colloquial, slang and vernacular French all afternoon in vain. I enquired in a roundabout Winnie the Pooh sort of casual way what calling someone un cochon rouge or indeed un petit cochon rougemight mean. The answer came back ‘red pig or little red pig’. So not helpful at all. Accordingly spurred by what had now become an obsessive need to understand, I made a full confession, including sharing my troubled mind over he who owns both brains and was subjected to a stunned and complete silence. The identical stunned silence it turned out that Raymond employed a few weeks later when asked what he had meant by calling The Brains a red pig. He claimed he had said ‘un petit cochon rose’ and meant that my husband is more sensitive than he lets on. Less macho, less girder-built. I can firmly report that he did NOT. No sir. Not. At. All. I heard him entirely distinctly and he called my husband a little RED pig. Of course it has stuck. It begged to and would have been dreadfully rude to ignore it.
Therefore, when staying in Boothbay Harbor, Maine as recommended by my blogging friend ‘The Weird Guy with a Dog’ whom I wholeheartedly urge you to check out, and confronted with this wingèd porcine outside a pretty store selling eccentric ironwork, I was minded to abduct it but made do with a photograph for now. I perfectly intend to own it when we have a house to put it on – after all who can resist such a wondrous hog, seemingly dancing in the air, gleeful cheeks a-puffing, perky ears a-flapping and that tail uplifted with such blithe abandon. Nothing at all like my husband but portraying perfectly the joie de vivre I suspect we all aspire to and with the added advantage of telling you which way the wind blows. It is a rapturous porker, a piggy I will dream of until I return to make it my very own. I was inclined to share this story by the Weekly Photo Challenge prompt this week ‘Rare’ – if it piques your interest, you can see a sensational selection of entries here.
PS: The quote is Martin Luther, Priest, Scolar, questioner and reformer ‘A faithful and good servant is a real godsend; but truly ‘t is a rare bird in the land’. Raymond has been a good and faithful servant to The Brains these more than twenty years and as you will discover when I write more of him is surely one of the rarest of birds you will encounter in a lifetime. Actually Luther was uncommonly fond of his rare birds giving the accolade to wise princes and even more to upright ones. That would probably apply today though to politicians rather than princes, I would suggest.
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.