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Posts from the ‘France’ Category

He watches from his mountain walls

When we have visitors or, as often, without and just because I can, I  go and have a little tête-à-tête with Napoléon.  He sits on his mount, ‘Marengo’ surveying Lac Laffrey about half an hour out of the city.  The statue of him was originally installed in Grenoble in 1868 and was moved to it’s present site where he can look out over the water and the mountains in 1929.

On a recent visit one of my daughters asked me why people  still think Napoléon was a  such a great man.  Of course that is a major simplification and I don’t intend to go into a detailed account of all the pros and cons of his undoubtedly iconic era but it would be wrong not to note that it includes the institution of the Napoléonic Code (or French Civil Code) parts of which are still in use around the world today.  It forbad privilege based on birth, allowed freedom of religion and stated that government jobs must be given to the most qualified all of which might sound pretty musical to modern ears, I would contend.  These facts might be received with some surprise by those brought up with the British version of history which tends to tell of his war-mongering and unabandoned desire to dominate the planet.  The joy of Nelson’s triumph over him at Trafalgar ranks high as does his catastrophic mistake in trying to conquer Russia in winter.  And of course Waterloo where he might have quoted the equally iconic Benny and Bjorn of Abba, in admitting that he was ‘finally meeting my Waterloo’.

So I told her the story of what happened at Laffrey in 1815.  After the messy mistakes of 1814 when his armies had been frozen and starved into submission in Russia and simultaneously the British had made rather more headway than was cozy on French soil, he surrendered.  The allies had him sent to the Island of Elba in exile.  It’s not far from France – in fact rather appropriately it lies between Corsica, where he was born, and Italy from whence his parents both haled.  Unfortunately for the European allies who were collectively breathing a sigh of relief, patting themselves on the back for a job well done and adjourning to a jolly fine restaurant to celebrate their undoubted brilliance,  this was not a man who was going to wear a stripey prison suit and stare wistfully at the nearby mainland coast dreaming of prior greatness.  Not a bit of it.  Even before he was dispatched he had negotiated what might seem rather decent terms.  He was allowed to keep his trusty and, by all accounts magnificent, Marengo, he dressed everyday in his customary cashmere culottes fresh pairs of which were shipped in weekly, his fine military jacket and crucially his trademark hat which he always wore in a jaunty horizontal,  jutting out right and left far beyond each ear rather than the traditional North-South in order that he could be picked out instantly by his troops.  He strutted around content that he was simply taking a little rest, a retreat if you will, and he plotted.

In March 1815, just a year after his surrender, he made his move.  Abetted by his so called guards, he sailed back to France (complete with horse) landing in Golfe-Juan on the Côte d’Azur his plan to march with his 900 fusiliers back to Paris.  Waiting for his arrival were plenteous  faithful on standby for the word that it was game on.  Avoiding Marseilles where the ‘desiré’, King Louis XVIII, had a copious barracks full of his own soldiers, he landed and processed through Grasses, Digne les Bains and Sisteron en route through the high French Alps.  This passage forever after and to this day known as la Route Napoléon is, to be frank,  not the easiest of drives in a modern car  and I can barely imagine what it must have been like on horse-back and foot over 200 years ago in March which is frequently still wintry and bitter in the mountains.  Admittedly it was probably a wise move not to insist on elephants as Hannibal had in 218 BC, but I equally don’t doubt that there was a nod to that feat, our Bonaparte being well disposed to all things Roman, even their defeat at the hands of a mighty strategist in them there hills. As he proudly progressed, more and more soldiers joined his ranks and by the time he reached Laffrey he had a very decent batallion with him.  But here stood a problem for here stood the Kings men, guns pointed and cocked, swords ready to swash out of their well-oiled buckles and swipe lethally at the merest deft twitch of a hand all under orders from their Monarch to stop him.  And stop he did.  Slowly, Napoléon dismounted his horse and stood, cashmere culottes giving him the comfortable and familiar feeling of Emporordom, west to east hat reminding all fore and aft that they were facing or following Napoléon himself and uttered calmly:    ‘Soldats ! je suis votre Empereur. Ne me reconnaissez-vous pas?’ – ‘soldiers, I am your Emperor, do you not recognise me?’.  Then he took several steps forward, stuck out his admittedly rather fine example of a barrel chest and declared ‘S’il en est un parmi vous qui veuille tuer son général, me voilà !’ – ‘if any of you want to kill your General, here I am!’  There followed the tiniest nano-nod to the briefest micro-pause and then a riotous and tumultuous cheer.  The entire troop, all the kings men themselves, fell in behind him to march decisively onwards and later that day he descended triumphant into Grenoble.

Now what stands out to me about this story is the sheer force of personality, the charisma and the brazen confidence that he was indeed the leader and that no-one would dare to stop him.  We are, of course led to believe that he was a tiny man though I understand that this was British propaganda and that he was actually of average height for the day, but nonetheless and whatever his stature, really that is quite a stunt and I adore the story.

The picture is taken from le Vercors looking over to the slopes of le Grande Serre and specifically Taillefer.  Look closely and you can see that the forest on the slope is in the shape of an eagle.  Some say it is a natural phenomenon but it seems to me quite a strange coincidence that the trees should have naturally taken the form of Napoléon’s preferred emblem by happenchance.  I was told that he ordered a forest be planted in the shape of two eagles and if you look to the right of the intact one you can make out the wings of a second which has seemingly and rather unfortunately lost it’s head in all the unfettered excitement.  Perhaps he didn’t have the time to issue such grandiose orders, after all he only relit his fire for a further hundred days before  succumbing to Wellington at Waterloo and being summarily dismissed to live on Saint Helena, remote in the South Atlantic where he died supposedly of stomach cancer. In fact many believe he actually died of arsenic poisoning.  I tend to believe the latter theory – after all, who was going to risk this hypnotically powerful man casting his charming spell on a fresh batch of conspiritors and causing a mighty headache to Europe all over again?  If that is my given, then I prefer to believe that the people themselves either planted or felled trees to create the eagles that would forever remind those casting their eyes towards Laffrey that it’s place in history was earned at the hands of this mesmerizing and magnetic man.

History, you see, is not entirely finite, it lies in the hands of the storyteller.  Is it myth, legend, a story so old that no-one can remember what is true any more?  Probably.  And I rather like my version.  It sits kindly and if you would kindly remember, out of all things can come good if we let it.  No one wants another Napoléon hawking his desire for conquest across a continent, but in the end it must be reconciled that he left a legacy that benefitted not just his own kinspeople but those that live, for example in Western Europe  – even if he would have preferred the whole of Europe to be called la France ….

And what has promted this little detour into French history as retold by me?  The weekly photo challenge is titled ‘Story’ and since recanting stories is what I do, I thought I would go for a big one and leave you to spot the eagle(s).  You can find a glittering gallery of entries to the field, here.

Disclaimer:  No-one has been harmed in my retelling of this tale so whilst begging your pardon for my poetic licence I beg you not to throw rocks at me for any sins of omission or erroneous embellishment

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PS:  My title is taken from Tennyson’s powerfully simple poem ‘The Eagle’:

He clasps the crag with crooked hands;
Close to the sun in lonely lands,
Ring’d with the azure world, he stands.
The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls;
He watches from his mountain walls,
And like a thunderbolt he falls.
The Eagle
Alfred, Lord Tennyson

And your bonus …. The Eagles – well I would, wouldn’t I?  Desperado seems to fit the mood of those last hundred days and the film has horses and guns and you can by all means make the rest of the story up for yourselves … personally, I find it a lovely diversion.

How it feels to be this alive

My spouse, who I generally refer to as ‘The Husband with Two Brains’ or HB² lived in Grenoble throughout the 1980s and regularly used to say to himself when he looked out of the window of his house that he must never take the view for granted because one day he wouldn’t be there any more.  I feel exactly the same way.  I love this place, experience it as the most natural of alignments as though I was born to be here and having the mountains so close by to explore freely and at will has been the greatest of gifts.  One day this time will simply be a memory, as indeed will be every moment of this little life I lead, but surely the silver lining is that I had this time, that I was granted the rare delight of living here, and the opportunity to get out whenever I want to and explore the other-worldly delights that such a naturally stunning place affords free of any charge.

The picture was taken in les Alpes Belledonne last summer.  It was an eerily beautiful day …. by turn brightest bluest sky with flouncing little fluffs of low cloud and a sudden mantilla of mist lending an ethereal atmosphere to the sturdy peaks and an irridescent sheen to the water.  It was unforgettable, I hope … for who knows if I will always have the gift of easily bringing memories forwards.  Who knows how motheaten my mind may become and how many moments will simply be lost like so many fragile bubbles too delicate to do anything but pop and fragment into the ether of my psyche, that curious morass of matter weightily wedged in my skull.

I share the moment with you in response to the weekly challenge tagged ‘Out Of This World’the many laudable entries to the gallery found here

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PS:  The title is from The Cure’s song ‘Out Of This World’ which instantly popped into my still vaguely functioning brain when I saw the challenge.  I can only hope that I will always remember how it feels to be this alive because I know that I am prosperous indeed.  I chose the clip simply because it was shot in Nyon which is not far from here just over the border in Switzerland on Lac Genève.

My first husband went to see The Cure in Amsterdam in the same era as HB² was living in Grenoble first time round.  He secured himself a fine viewpoint in front of everyone but regrettably failed to realise that he was standing precisely on the spot where the safety barriers would rise out of the floor as the show began.  As Robert Smith, wax faced and angsty with his extra-long pullover sleeves all ready to flop foppishly at his thighs as he performed, took to the mic, the aforementioned husband that would be for a while, was raised almost messianic in front of him …. I believe the stunned expression on the artist’s face was worthy of one witnessing something quite out of this world …..

When we look back at it all as I know we will
You and me, wide eyed
I wonder…
Will we really remember how it feels to be this alive?

And I know we have to go
I realize we only get to stay so long
Always have to go back to real lives
Where we belong
Where we belong
Where we belong

When we think back to all this and I’m sure we will
Me and you, here and now
Will we forget the way it really is
Why it feels like this and how?

And we always have to go I realize
We always have to say goodbye
Always have to go back to real lives

But real lives are the reason why
We want to live another life
We want to feel another time
Another time…

Yeah another time

To feel another time…

When we look back at it all as I know we will
You and me, wide eyed
I wonder…
Will we really remember how it feels to be this alive?

And I know we have to go
I realize we always have to turn away
Always have to go back to real lives

But real lives are why we stay
For another dream
Another day
For another world
Another way
For another way…

One last time before it’s over
One last time before the end
One last time before it’s time to go again…

But are not all things beautiful?

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 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. 

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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.

Coup de Cœur – Part Nine: And don’t be afraid of the dark

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

You’ll never walk alone

Oscar Hammerstein/Richard Rodgers

Coup de Cœur – Part Eight: As if a hand has come out and taken yours

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.

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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.

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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

Marcolès Monday (Coup de Cœur – Part Seven): Anyone Who Had A Heart

Surprise! Surprise! It’s Monday and I am keeping the promise I made a couple of weeks ago to devote each start of the week day to bringing you stories of our quite possibly never ending renovation project in le Cantal deep in la vraie France profonde. Until I moved to the US to spend the whole of 2016 this had been an occasional series chronicling the tale of the renovation of a former medieval watch-tower in southern France …..

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Actually, it’s no surprise because I do always keep my promises and I never ever say anything I don’t mean. Voilà! This tiny billet-doux is simply an introduction to the continued saga. For the rest of the week I will post a previous installment a day, bringing us neatly to next Monday when I can pick up the reins and relight the fire which I know must be burning with heated anticipation in your bellies at the thought of this cornucopia of delight even before the Christmas fun frolics and fantastic festival of over-indulgence really starts. Just call me a truly big-hearted girl as I scatter my glitter freely and seemingly without restraint.

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Rules of engagement …. this is NOT a renovation blog. Although I have renovated several old properties including an Art Deco flat in south west London, a 17th Century cottage with Georgian facade in Oxfordshire, a 19th century village shop, a Victorian farmhouse in South West Ireland and, my personal triumph, a 1950 ex-council house which I sold to a couple who were disappointed that I had replaced the windows, so convinced were they that they were buying a vintage farm cottage. Trust me the original metal cased local authority standard issue frames were not pretty and, have further faith, the Georgian-bar, double glazed lovelies were not only elegant but equally importantly stopped the rampant leakage of heat from every aperture. There is a crucial link between all those projects and the jobs I later undertook when running my own business helping others maximise the potential of their property for sale. I have worked always with budgets ranging from microscopic to frankly non-existent. So non-existent, in fact, were the finances of most of my clients that I failed to follow through on collecting my own fees. I felt their pain you see, when the sale of their home was prompted, as it so often is, by one of the fabled real estate ‘Three D’s’ – Divorce, Death, Debt. They smiled, I starved … it’s a theme in my life.

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The same funding method applies to our place in Southern France. It is a labour of love and sweat and pain and tears and virtually no money and so far we have been at it for more than three years. Apart from a pot of gold which is basically … well basically just a pot. Peer closely into this vessel and you will see cobwebs, dust, possibly even fossilized spiders and other unidentified creatures and once bobbish bits, but you will spy not so much as a farthing in hard cash and no flexible plastic friend either. Apart from this entirely useless and not even decorative receptacle, there is the issue of HB² – this is ‘The Husband with Two Brains. My husband for the avoidance of doubt. He and his brains are mostly to be found flitting all over the planet doing oversized brain things with astrophysics and radio-astronomy but he’s a rare sighting in France. Those who have experienced trying to undertake a project that then reveals itself to be an increasingly major spiraling upwards to a breathtakingly vast project, from afar with no budget to pay others, will surely sympathise. Of course, I am in France and originally and until this year the apartment we rented was 2 hours North of the house. Now I live in Grenoble and I am more like 6 or 7 hours East. That and the fact that there are things that I am simply not physcially strong enough to sensibly tackle. I’m always looking for sneaky tricks to make myself a littler slenderer but squished by falling masonory is a little extreme, I rather feel. It means that I only do the things I can do and presently I visit about once every 5 weeks. There is a reason for the cadence. If you are good and behave very very (and indeed very) well, I might be persuaded to share the logic.

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So here’s the nub. I’m not here to advise or pose as an expert. What I do is tell stories and the Marcolès stories are intended above all things to be entertaining. As you read the stories, you need to bear in mind that I am writing retrospectively … that we agreed to buy La Maison Carrée (The Square House) in 2013 but didn’t take ownership for a year and it was a further 9 months before we got the keys; that the house is considered the jewel of a very tiny and perfectly formed medieval ‘city’ due to its being the oldest building in town and that we consider ourselves custodians of it for our lifetime.. By the way, technically for reasons I may explain in a post it is a City not a Village despite having a head-count of less than 500 inhabitants. For us the town and their sensibilities are paramount. Is it fay to feel that we were meant to have this house? Crucially considering that we bought it even though it sits literally plumb centre of the cité when our natural habitat, given our collective inner hermit would be an uninhabited island or at the very least the middle of entirely no-where, high up in the elements where you feel nature and have no choice but to go with her …. I jest. Sort of. No really, I’m joking. I think. Actually, face facts, I am decidedly not joking.

I SO enjoy your comments and take gently delivered and kindly meant advice well and to heart so please do join in and spritz the commentary with your own wisdom and experience but don’t expect me to be the very brilliant Gill at Côte et Campagne who IS an expert and is renovating on a tiny to nonexistent budget and who, with the stoic, good-natured support of her partner Trev has achieved nothing short of a miracle of a rescue of a small village house. Gill is an artist by training and it shows, Trev has taught himself to be a true artisan with all things wood. Take a look …. they humble me. They also renovate and repurpose furniture and other things …. I dream of the day when I am ready to go into a buying spree of frenzied proportions in their shop. Be still my frantically beating heart.

And on that note … overcome with my own ability to create such gleaming lustre as I sprinkle my fairy dust and strive to make the world a shinier place, I will leave you to prepare yourselves for my bounteous gift of 6 episodes in 6 days of ‘Coup de Couer’ – the story of a couple driven by love, insanity and absolute and mostly unswerving certainty that it truly and really WILL be beautiful. Eventually.

A demain mes amies ….

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PS: The title is a Cilla Black Song ‘Anyone Who Had a Heart’ …. the aforementioned Gill will understand why I picked Cilla. Apart from the reason that must be hers to share, she (Gill, not the late and hugely lamented Cilla) and I share a notion that houses have spirits, souls if you will, and sometimes those pesky buildings are reluctant to cooperate – in fact sometimes they can be downright unhelpful and even entirely resistant to the tender efforts of well-meaning rescuers. Thoroughly stubborn and suspicious …. these are not love-affairs for the light-hearted, in fact sometimes one feels that the house would rather lie and decay into the ground than accept the attentions of it’s enthusiastically amorous new owners …. here’s Cilla at her finest as your bonus:

Anyone Who Hard A Heart

Anyone who ever loved, could look at me
And know that I love you
Anyone who ever dreamed, could look at me
And know I dream of you
Knowing I love you so
Anyone who had a heart
Would take me in his arms and love me, too
You couldn’t really have a heart and hurt me,
Like you hurt me and be so untrue
What am I to do

Every time you go away, I always say
This time it’s goodbye, dear
Loving you the way I do
I take you back, without you I’d die dear
Knowing I love you so
Anyone who had a heart
Would take me in his arms and love me, too
You couldn’t really have a heart and hurt me,
Like you hurt me and be so untrue
What am I to do

Knowing I love you so
Anyone who had a heart
Would take me in his arms and love me, too
You couldn’t really have a heart and hurt me,
Like you hurt me and be so untrue
Anyone who had a heart would love me too
Anyone who had a heart would surely
Take me in his arms and always love me
Why won’t y

DionneWarwick

Smile, boys, that’s the style

What is it that elevates a place from somewhere you lay your weary bones and nourish yourself to being allowed to be  home?  I have yet to work out the why and the what and, in truth, though it is a notion that captivates me, I probably never will find a finite answer. For four years until this September, my home was a village in the North West of le Cantal.  This was hugely significant for me since, for reasons honestly too dull to share, I had moved house eleven times in the previous fifteen years. Suffice to ingest that only one of these moves was by choice.  2016 saw me seldom in this really real home as I was allowed by the Government of the mighty United States of America to reside in  Massachusetts with my two-brained husband and, believe me, I mean truly believe me, I was and remain grateful.   This year we spent the first half in Grenoble together languishing in a vast apartment complete with corinthian columns courtesy of the institute for whom he was doing a tranche of work.  DSCF0375

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.

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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.

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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.

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PS:  The title comes from World War One Marching song ‘Pack Up Your Troubles’ written  the brothers George and Felix Powell. If you have a mind you might read about the ultimately tragic story of the song here.  Whilst I would in no way compare my recent mood to the ill-fated Felix, the melancholy of his story somehow seemed to fit the mood of this piece.

Your bonus:  ‘Oh What A Lovely War!’ which never ceases to remind me that I have absolutely no right to any blues whatsoever:

Pack up your troubles
in your old kit bag
and smile, smile, smile
while you’ve a lucifer
to light your fag
smile, boys, that’s the style

What’s the use of worrying
it never was worthwhile
so, pack up your troubles
in your old kit bag
and smile, smile, smile

Pack up Your Troubles

Felix Powell

Hand in glove

Until I was fifteen, I had two Grannies.  My paternal granny was always known as Granny Kim on account of her eponymous, over-stuffed cat which resembled a large tabby cushion and used to lie on the half-landing of her staircase in a sunspot meditating fatly.  Granny had only one arm.  The other was lost in The First World War.  Amputated on account of gangrene, not mislaid.  She was a nurse as so many of the women of her generation were.  She never expected to marry after losing her limb.  With the over-abundance of women to the dreadfully depleted stock of men when peace followed the tragically dubbed ‘war to end all wars’, she rather felt that her fate was dancing with other spinster women and dreaming of a never-to-be love.  However in time, quite some time, she met my Grandfather who had had his vocal chords severed by the village doctor during an emergency traceotomy as a child and from then on could only speak in a whisper – as a point of interest he spoke nine languages fluently in his whisper.  From time to time I remember to contemplate the thanks I owe the physician who, respecting his hippocratic oath, in that moment saved a young boy’s life and by doing so gave me the chance of birth.   Granny Kim used to say that they were two cripples together.  I imagine these days she might be shushed and cautioned against deflowering delicate sensibilities with her candid comment.

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Granny Kim (who I have written about before) was irresistibly irreverent.  She had seemingly no filter between what  was in her head and what came out of her mouth.  For example the busty girl tottering down the seafront in tightest of tight, scoopiest of scooped angora sweater must clearly  have heard the shrilly uttered ‘VERY uplifted’ from the neat tweed clad old woman tottering toward her.  And the French neighbour of my own new to motherhood mummy proudly showing off her own newborn to Granny was asked what she had called the child.  ‘James’, replied Madame.  ‘And James was a very small snail’ said Granny.  It’s A A Milne, from ‘The Four Friends’ but the French lady, so my mother reports, was visibly and vividly offended and operated the etiquette of ‘on ne peut plus se voir’ which  as Mel of France Says explains ever eloquently her means ‘one cannot see you any more’ and literally makes the recipient invisible ever after.   My mother wondered if she imagined Granny was calling her sprog a frog.  She wasn’t.  She was saying the first thing that popped into her head.  I have the same tendency.  I try to control it.  I frequently fail.

So what is that preamble about.  Well, with only one arm Granny had a drawer FULL of single gloves kindly donated by countless people over the years who had mislaid it’s pair.  She found it ceaselessly amusing that people never stopped in their surge of waste-not-want-not good heartedness, to think that their gift was only useful if it happened to be the correct glove for Granny’s remaining hand.  Therefore she had a quite magnificent collection of single gloves languishing in tissue paper which she had graciously accepted rather than burst anyone’s bubble of well meant intent.

Which brings me to Grenoble.  Grenoble was, for many years the capital of glove-making in France.  The giants of glove-making made fortunes and the most revered of all was a man named Xavier Jouvin.  He has an entire quartier dedicated to his name – looking over the river it is lovely and there is a large statue of him in the middle of it’s main square.  I have become very fascinated with Xav and found out that he is most revered for having created a form of mass-production of gloves.  He fashioned a machine that could cut up to SIX pairs, six mind you, of identical gloves at one go.  Breathtaking in 1838.  When I leave Grenoble, it will be with a pair of hand-made Grenoblois gloves to remember my time by.

You might recall that I was previously living in a positively palatial apartment  provided by the institute that my husband was doing a tranche of work for in the first 6 months of this year. Amongst other delights it had corinthian columns and  as the time approached to leave it  I seriously considered chaining myself to these pillars and refusing to leave.   I had however, a last-minute change of heart and decided that I would leave quietly and with gratitude for the time we had spent there.  Sugaring pills tends to provide incentive, I find.  My candied pellet is this:  the place we found, the small apartment that is less than a third of the size of the other, is contained in what the French call Un Hôtel Particulier which is in effect a grand residence built as the town house for someone of importance.  Guess who?  Well so far, I know it was one of the great glovemen but I am not able to finitely say which one.  Of course I hope its M. Jouvin Xavier.  I am currently researching more thoroughly but this oasis in the centre of Grenoble has given me the rare chance to live in a very special building that retains much of it’s original fabric.  From the hand painted walls in the entrance hall to the beautiful tiling and ceilings it is wonderful.  I have the luxury of a terrace and a garden and best of all I have a double curved staircase up to the front door which makes me feel that I should be wearing kid gloves and matching slippers with some sort of an empire line Lizzy Bennet dress and bonnet with thick silky ribbons neath my chinny chin chin, at all times.  My quarters are exquisite, dare I say better than the last place  and also retain a cornucopia of original features.  If you would like, I will share the innards of this place I am occupying … I’m happy to  but I never want to overtax with tedium..

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PS:  Granny Kim was fond of reciting this poem and peeling with laughter at it’s quite gasping ghastliness.  I had never paid it much heed except to recite it idly and wince when having flashbacks to Granny Kim in her hammock.   Until today, when incubating this post it popped into my head spontaneously and inevitably. I thought I should find out who IS responsible for this vacuous verse.

It was written by a woman called Frances Darwin Cornford.  She was the grand-daughter of the immeasurably brilliant Charles Darwin.  Ironically it seems that the father of evolutionary theory had a somewhat poorly evolved grandchild.  As it turns out

G K Chesterton agreed with me.  Read his wonderfully ascerbic response to this quite appalling effort, please do …

To A Lady Seen From A Train

Frances Darwin Cornford

O why do you walk through the fields in gloves,
Missing so much and so much?
O fat white woman whom nobody loves,
Why do you walk through the fields in gloves,
When the grass is soft as the breast of doves
And shivering sweet to the touch?
O why do you walk through the fields in gloves,
Missing so much and so much

The Fat White Woman Speaks

G K Chesterton

Why do you rush through the field in trains,
Guessing so much and so much?
Why do you flash through the flowery meads,
Fat-head poet that nobody reads;
And why do you know such a frightful lot
About people in gloves and such?
And how the devil can you be sure,
Guessing so much and so much,
How do you know but what someone who loves
Always to see me in nice white gloves
At the end of the field you are rushing by,
Is waiting for his Old Dutch?

And as a bonus because I swiped it for my title, The Smiths belt out ‘Hand in Glove’ in Glasgow on this date (September 25th) 1985 – it fits perfectly, as all good gloves should

I am not done with my changes

Such little lives we live if only we would admit it.  All of us however fêted.  Marking out our  pathetic tiny snail trails as we go.  Imprinting what we do – good, bad, downright ugly through our little journey.  Imagining ourselves important or impotent when in fact neither is probably true.

Stanley Kunitz, born in a place that I ran (or rather more accurately staggered) last Autumn at a time when I thought I would never run again has it right in this poem.  I, me, mine … not at all relevant when you equate the microscopic me to the great landscape of time in which we exist.  Just let’s protect what we have – we can do our little bit by acting decently, by regarding others with an importance not by dint of  their shoes or their achievements or their accumulated wealth but just because.  Because they co-exist with us on this planet we all accidentally find ourselves on.

I have indeed walked through many lives.  All of them in this skin.  And I will not be done and I will not give up hope  until I draw my fatal last breath.  Never.  Not at all.  I am many layered and yet simple cored just like you … if we all accept that, the rest is blissfully uncomplicated.  I give you this in answer to the weekly photo challenge titled ‘Layered’ of which a delicious gallery of entries you will find here.

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The Layers

Stanley Kunitz

I have walked through many lives,
some of them my own,
and I am not who I was,
though some principle of being
abides, from which I struggle
not to stray.
When I look behind,
as I am compelled to look
before I can gather strength
to proceed on my journey,
I see the milestones dwindling
toward the horizon
and the slow fires trailing
from the abandoned camp-sites,
over which scavenger angels
wheel on heavy wings.
Oh, I have made myself a tribe
out of my true affections,
and my tribe is scattered!
How shall the heart be reconciled
to its feast of losses?
In a rising wind
the manic dust of my friends,
those who fell along the way,
bitterly stings my face.
Yet I turn, I turn,
exulting somewhat,
with my will intact to go
wherever I need to go,
and every stone on the road
precious to me.
In my darkest night,
when the moon was covered
and I roamed through wreckage,
a nimbus-clouded voice
directed me:
“Live in the layers,
not on the litter.”
Though I lack the art
to decipher it,
no doubt the next chapter
in my book of transformations
is already written.
I am not done with my changes.

PS:  The picture is taken at Vassieux-en-Vercors where people lived and died in a rather more profound way than I can ever begin to imagine.

If youre afraid of butter, use cream!

The entirely marvellous Esmé asked me to write a guest post for her blog ‘The Recipe Hunter’ so I offer up to you a little light legend Grenoblois and a recipe for REAL Gratin Dauphinois.  Dig in, do!

Follow the link and you will be magically transported Chez The Recipe Hunter ….

Source: G…uest #21: Le vrai Gratin Dauphinois

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PS:  The title is Julia Child – une heroine culinaire