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Posts from the ‘French Culture’ Category

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

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

It is such a secret place …. the land of tears

At seventeen, in keeping I imagine, with most seventeens I could not wait to be eighteen and proclaim myself adult.  Adult enough to do all the things thus far forbidden even if I was really too timid or scared or plain perplexed to really want to try them.   Nothing would be out of my reach, I would emerge from ugly duck-dom as the rightful swan and I would, clearly discover all the things that the adults before me had failed to find.  I would invent love and sex and I would invent drinking and I would travel to far flung exotic places and I would absorb by osmosis more wisdom than any adult before me – dullards all – could ever hope to.  At seventeen.

At seventeen I bought a book which seemed to wink at me even though it’s cover was pummelled and punished, tired and tawdry in the second-hand shop I favoured in our local town.  Favoured because I was not yet allowed to go out and make my fortune and my mark on the adult world and therefore I did not have a purse distended with high-value notes.  Of course that was bound to change when this mythic majority was attained.  At seventeen.  The book was ‘The Little Prince’, Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s charming, touching and poignant allegory of a small prince who leaves his own tiny planet and travels the universe, odyssey-style experiencing all the whims and foolhardiness of adult behaviour and eventually encounters the narrator who has crash-landed his plane in the desert and whose life will be forever altered by their sojourn together.  I am sure that the fact that I read it first at seventeen cemented my love affair with this book all the more thoroughly.

These days I keep two copies at home, wherever my home at that moment is.  One in English, the other in French.  If you stay in my home wherever that home is at that moment, you will find a copy of the book by your bed (in the language I think you would prefer).  There is no instruction nor implied obligation that you should read it and I expect, in reality, most of those staying in my home wherever that home is at that moment, tactfully leave it where it lies putting it, I hope affectionately, down to  well-meant eccentricity.

These last few days I have found  myself more wistful than usual and I simply couldn’t put my finger on why.  Then yesterday my youngest daughter sent me a film clip of her birthday party.  Surrounded by her closest friends she is opening their joint present to her.  The delight, the laughter, the tears of piquant joy keenly tangible.  I felt an aching sadness  watching because I was not there.  As neither should I have been.  My daughter was born in 1995 which even for one as mathmatically disabled as I, means she was twenty two this birthday.  She had previously reported to me that this implies that she has no choice but to be a genuine adult going forwards.  She has run out of excuses.  She is no longer eighteen nor twenty-one.  And she is not seventeen.  I realised watching this little video that my melancholy is born of something quite simple.  Thirty years of being mummy to my child-children is now formally over.  They have all crossed quietly over to that place I longed for at seventeen.  And I shall mourn their passing softly whilst delighting in the  young women they have become.  The adults inventing love and sex and drinking and real wisdom that old dullards like me surely never knew.

But I hope they never lose the child that lurks inside them.   The child I cared for and nurtured and protected.  The child that believed in fairies at the bottom of the garden, the child that positively hurt with excitement on Christmas Eve, the child who saw things through naïve eyes that prompt the profoundest wisdom of their lives.  The precious child within.  The essence of our adult self, if only we remember to protect it with all our might and never let it go.

I have reflected and now I can move forwards.  And I offer this to the arcade of entries in this week’s Photo Challenge titled ‘Reflecting’ of which you can feast upon the entire beauteous banquet here

The photograph of The Old North Bridge in Concord MA was taken by my daughter when staying with us last summer.  That she captured it and that it presents a perfectly reflecting image in tandem with the recent crossing of her own bridge to fully fledged adult, whatever that implies, made it, in my mind, rather appropriate.

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PS:  The title of this piece, is of course, a quote from the book.  In context, it concerns the little boy trying to understand why, if thorns can’t protect a flower from a marauding sheep, why the rose would bother to grow them.  The narrator, preoccupied with ‘matters of consquence’ fobs him off with the instant and unconsidered answer that flowers grow them out of spite.  The tyrade this illicits from the far wiser mind of the child goes thus:

“I don’t believe you! Flowers are weak creatures. They are naïve. They reassure themselves as best they can. They believe that their thorns are terrible weapons . . .”

I did not answer. At that instant I was saying to myself: “If this bolt still won’t turn, I am going to knock it out with the hammer.” Again the little prince disturbed my thoughts:

“And you actually believe that the flowers–“

“Oh, no!” I cried. “No, no, no! I don’t believe anything. I answered you with the first thing that came into my head. Don’t you see–I am very busy with matters of consequence!”

He stared at me, thunderstruck.

“Matters of consequence!”

He looked at me there, with my hammer in my hand, my fingers black with engine-grease, bending down over an object which seemed to him extremely ugly . . .

“You talk just like the grown-ups!”

That made me a little ashamed. But he went on, relentlessly:

“You mix everything up together . . . You confuse everything . . .”

He was really very angry. He tossed his golden curls in the breeze.

“I know a planet where there is a certain red-faced gentleman. He has never smelled a flower. He has never looked at a star. He has never loved any one. He has never done anything in his life but add up figures. And all day he says over and over, just like you: ‘I am busy with matters of consequence!’ And that makes him swell up with pride. But he is not a man–he is a mushroom!”

“A what?”

“A mushroom!”

The little prince was now white with rage.

“The flowers have been growing thorns for millions of years. For millions of years the sheep have been eating them just the same. And is it not a matter of consequence to try to understand why the flowers go to so much trouble to grow thorns which are never of any use to them? Is the warfare between the sheep and the flowers not important? Is this not of more consequence than a fat red-faced gentleman’s sums? And if I know–I, myself–one flower which is unique in the world, which grows nowhere but on my planet, but which one little sheep can destroy in a single bite some morning, without even noticing what he is doing–Oh! You think that is not important!”

His face turned from white to red as he continued:

“If some one loves a flower, of which just one single blossom grows in all the millions and millions of stars, it is enough to make him happy just to look at the stars. He can say to himself, ‘Somewhere, my flower is there . . .’ But if the sheep eats the flower, in one moment all his stars will be darkened . . . And you think that is not important!”

He could not say anything more. His words were choked by sobbing.

The night had fallen. I had let my tools drop from my hands. Of what moment now was my hammer, my bolt, or thirst, or death? On one star, one planet, my planet, the Earth, there was a little prince to be comforted. I took him in my arms, and rocked him. I said to him:

“The flower that you love is not in danger. I will draw you a muzzle for your sheep. I will draw you a railing to put around your flower. I will–” 

I did not know what to say to him. I felt awkward and blundering. I did not know how I could reach him, where I could overtake him and go on hand in hand with him once more.

It is such a secret place …. the land of tears

I always cry my own tears when I read that passage because it permeates to the heart of my own protected child-self nestling deep inside.

Your bonus because her wonderful song, which in truth, apart from her petite figure in contrast to my rather more gangly frame, WAS me at that precise age, has  been shamelessly ransacked in the text of this piece, your bonus therefore is Janis Ian:

Visions of happiness

In the interests of keeping things lighthearted, particularly when the going has been a little less polished and serene than I might have liked, I have often wise-cracked that there has clearly been a dreadful mistake and that I am in fact supposed to be living a different life.  Usually the whimsy life referred to contains a palatial home and whatever accoutrements the unfortunate recipient of my frolicking wit cares to embellish it with.  In fact it is not at all uncommon for me to help myself to a counterfeit life just for the helluvit and to make fictional daydreaming sugar whatever the reality of the bitter medicinal pill of the moment is.  It is fair to comment that in my own make-believe there is much detail in the sketch.  Details like tall columns and ornate plaster-work and rooms big enough to dance in.   It’s a trifling and inoffensive affectation.  Harmless, I am.  Occasionally deluded but entirely inoccuous.

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Now imagine this, if you will.   When I knew for certain sure that we would be spending the first six months of this year in Grenoble, a city we visit often and of which I am fond as one is fond of a rather nice passing acquaintance – that person who always seems so cordial and kind and whom you don’t really know at all but with whom you are certain you could be the bosomest of buddies given the chance.  That was Grenoble for me …. a hint of something possible and tantalising.  So once I knew we would be here, my reverie started in earnest.

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The rapidly gilded fantasy had some concrete and real decisions attached.  We wanted to live right in the middle of town to get under the skin of the city at it’s heart, not at it’s suburban fingertips and we wanted to live in an old building.  Around this time, as my frenzy of searching for flats heltered and skeltered hither and thither bouncing round the internet like a manic squashball I came across a place which prompted me to forward the detail to the long-suffering Husband with Two Brains with the covering note ‘Please can we have this one?  If you let us have this one I will live with no furniture and will exist on a diet of dust and air for the whole six months.  I actually will.  So please please please say  we can’.  The Brains responded with the email equivalent of a non-commital smile and nod.

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When we arrived in Grenoble just before Christmas to arrange viewings through the Institute that HB2 is working with, The Director (a fellow I have always liked) made a cool and frankly rather too razor-sharp exit saying that renting places in Grenoble is like extracting well-rooted teeth with no anaesthetic and sweetly wishing us well as he fled for the hills.  The unfortunate and delightfully stoic young assistant assigned to us, started to work through our list of properties.  She arranged two viewings that afternoon and two the next morning  The first place, the top floor of an historic monument facing l’ancien Palais du Parliament, was love at first sight, albeit unfinished.  The second would certainly do with a lovely double aspect salon and excellent location.  I should explain two things at this point.  The first is that we are experienced at renting in France.  Here, you will normally sign a lease for three years after which you can extend for a further three or six years.  The rights remain with the tenant – the landlord can’t kick you out but you can terminate with notice at any time.  That is hugely over-simplified but you get the gist.  So apartment number two was shown to us by a  young estate agent who seemed incapable of standing up straight but favoured leaning provocatively on any available solid object of sufficient height, facial expression impassively composed somewhere between nonchalant and fashionably bored.   The deep inpenetrably dark eyes of this glacially chic individual flickered with contempt when we explained that we only wanted the place for six months (something that in the UK a landlord would be generally delighted to bite your hand off for, particularly when the agreement will be with an institute of standing in the city meaning no risk at all on the landlord) …. six months?  No.  That absolute, resolute  ‘non’  beloved of the French when there is positively no wiggle room, no negotiation and it’s been a pleasure, bonne journée.  Never mind.  We still have number one and that was our favourite.  Or do we?  The assistant called the agent who escalated her to the manager and the manager called the landlord to confirm that it would be ready mid-January and with the lovely early Christmas present that they had secured good tenants through a venerable institute for six months thereby neatly bypassing the winter months when rentals are lean in the city and dropping them into prime renter-reaping territory in mid-summer.   And there was that word again ‘non’ … not because they didn’t want us for 6 months but because they were unsure that they could get the tiny amount of work required to complete the flat done before …. March.

The following morning we had number three, a sprawling loft inhabited by a seemingly endless cascade of student girls and filled, predictably with all the necessary and un-necessary detritus of girlie-ness which took me ricocheting back to the years and seemingly endless years of four daughters and one bathroom and no-one ever in a matching pair of socks.  I put my bravest mummy face on, Two Brains walked round with a visible and clearly disgusting smell under his fine Gaelic nose.  I was stoically convinced that it could work, that once the girls had erradicated the landfill and revealed the space that I could get a certain urban edgy vibe going in this place and release my thinly veiled inner bohemian on the unsuspecting Grenoblois population.  And I might have continued in this vein were it not for  the casual statement by head girl that the broken door to the building had been like it for months but the landlord was tired of fixing it so he’d decided not to repair it ever again.  Now don’t get me wrong, I can fantasise about a bit of gritty living, indeed I was at that very moment inventing  a bit of latterday Beatnicking but the idea of absolutely random anyone being able to walk into the place uninvited at absolutely random any time was not appetising in the slightest.  Really, not at all.  Oddly enough.   Number four was in a good location, a good building (Haussmannian) with high ceilings and lovely floors.  But compact.  Very very compact.  Particularly the shower with resplendent puce toilet squished next to it – the colour enhancing the fact that it was clearly extremely uncomfortable with it’s situation.   The cubicle was so small I am confident that I would have got wedged whilst washing and warbling and had to be prized out with grease-guns and crowbars by a team of jolly pompiers (firemen) thus making the wrong sort of headlines in le Dauphiné.  Or worse, le Monde and picked up and flashed round the world by Reuters.  I felt quite faint at this inevitable prospect and the place did not make the list.  Which left us with precisely no list and no choice but to drive to England for Christmas knowing that instead of planning removals we would be living out of a suitcase in a hotel at the start of January.

And so it was that at the dawn of 2017 we arrived back in Grenoble filled with the resolution that New Year’s inevitably ingender and fixing our determined chins, set about finding our perfect nest.  The valiant assistant made more phone calls working her way through the new list we had drawn up.  She netted three visits from six possible roosts and off we set to visit the first one.  I was filled with zealous hope for this one.  In the Quartier des Antiquaires the dossier showed a beautifully presented place with high ceilings and lovely floors and oozing appeal and charm.  We arrived on the nose of the appointed time and a waxy rather sallow skinned fellow opened the door.  He reeked, positively seeped from his every pore, of smoke and clearly not just cigarette smoke.  If you catch the fetid drift.  I am fairly certain that he never ventures outside and if he does it is certainly not in daylight.  His eyes were hollow and red rimmed and I am quietly confident that he had not seen this hour of the day in many a decade.  This was not an advertisement for spritzy healthy living.  The flat, as it turned out was quite hard to see being entirely rammed solid with his enormous volume of possessions.  In fact the place had the air that if you moved too quickly and caused the tiniest zephyr it would simply burst.  He told me happily that he and his wife were performance artists.  I wondered idly if this place were actually a set for one of their plays because it was like wandering through a hellish series of tableaux – you know those performances in several parts where you walk from set to set and are treated to seemingly disconnected installments that somehow in the minds of the creator make sense.  And you adopt that air of serene interest whilst all the while looking for an escape route.  That.  There are no doors you see, just a series of depositories for some of the most seriously cluttered clutter I have ever seen.  None of which has ever been cleaned.  I enquired politely if the kitchen furniture would be staying.  Which it wouldn’t.  This (and it is not at all uncommon in France) meant that the kitchen would consist of a space with a tap in it.  I didn’t know whether to be relieved or dismayed as my addled mind tried to find a way of making this Danté-on-dope-interior work for us.  I failed.  Had I succeeded and decided this was the one, I would now be going through the rigours of divorce – HB2’s expression was granite-set and distinctly unpretty.  As we left, the fellow invited us to his wife’s next performance.  I smiled and nodded and remembered that I have not the teensiest smidge of space in my schedule  for the next many aeons.

Which left us with two places to visit.  One of my favourite parts of Grenoble are les quais and the second place was on Quai de France which is historic and convenient albeit the other side of the river.  The call of water, a view of water has me every time so my hope-ometer was registering off the scale for this baby when we arrived early the following morning.  Do you see a pattern forming?   You are correct.  The pictures of this apartment must have been at least a decade old when, un-lived in, the owner had restored it and dressed it for the Estate Agents to lure people like us in.  Or not people like us actually …. this had been a co-location (flatshare) for years.  The young people were delightful but let’s be brutally frank with self …. I have children who are older than these bambini.  I am no longer content with student digs in fact I might venture that at my lofty age it could be construed as a teeny bit infra-dig.  That and the off-hand remark by the young man showing us around that despite having two bathrooms they only ever use one because the other one is dangerous.  The pompiers flashed through my mind again.  Will I ever find a place where I can make my ablutions without fear of torrid headlines or death or both in this city?

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The final place on Cours Jean Jaurès which is the main artery of Grenoble was lovely.  Honestly.  No catch.  It was delightful.  Good Belle-Epoque building (not Haussmannian but with views over those that make up the bold and bustling corners of the streets facing the river); high ceilings; shower that would not risk entombment every time I entered it, nor, the slightly bewildered agent assured me in that ‘humour her, she can’t help it, she’s foreign’ way  when asked, any other lurking dangers in the bathroom; fitted kitchen to include white goods (we have them but preferred not to have to move them if possible) and all in all a jolly good fit.  But of course we still had to traverse the, apparantly insurmountable, six months issue so we wanted another as back-up.

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Except there were no more choices.  Don’t get me wrong, the little hotel-appart was very comfortable but living in a space where swinging a cat even if we had one and thought that was the reasonable pastime of a sane person, was not in the plan for six months.  What to do?  The poor assistant was developing an unbecoming facial tic and I really didn’t want the guilt associated with this developing further into a full-blown twitch.   At this point, I suggested in the faintest of whispers that I actually knew that the place I had suggested we live in with no food nor furniture for six months was still available.  I let my sentence trail ephemerally into sweet silence and waited for the inevitable pounce of desperation. One.  Two.  Three …  Two Brains and The Assistant politely, and to my possible shame, predictably, obliged and later that afternoon, I walked through vast coaching doors into my own dream.  The ceilings are at least 13′ high with panelling and moulding and ceiling roses that would grace any fine born abode, pillars and a 65 foot hallway with lovely tiling, parquet floors and a kitchen sporting a piano.  No honestly a piano.  Un piano de cuisine is a range cooker.   This one is vintage if you take vintage to include sometime in, at a guess the early seventies.  I’m a sucker for a good cooker and this one has me smitten.  You can opt to take the gorgeous old elevator complete with pull-down highly polished wood seat on brass fittings, or glide up the lovely gently winding stone staircase.  The double front doors to the apartment are high, heavy, adorned with beautiful brasswork and so finely balanced that they seemingly float open and shut with the merest whisper of pressure.  The windows are floor to ceiling and open onto plant balconies, the internal doors mostly double have glazed panels to let the light flood the place.  But did I mention pillars?  Pillars!  It has beauteous ornate columns supporting it’s dizzingly high ceilings. The views from the front are of la Banque de France, itself a gorgeous, unmistakeably French, almost Chateauesque building.  The ground floor of the building also houses a bank so if I get bored with living my go-to daydream I can press reset and imagine myself Bonnie plotting with Clyde to pull off the heist of the century.  I could happily sport that beret ….

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I wafted around the place with a look of the contented Tigger when he had tried the haycorns and the thistles and the hunny and discovered that Roo’s strengthening medicine was actually what Tiggers are meant to eat.  In the same vein, Osyths are meant to live in this place for this six months.  Of this I am thoroughly certain.  In fact, I may chain myself to the fine vintage radiators on move-out day and go on hunger strike.  It is love.   In 1822 Stendhal noted in ‘On Love’ that ‘there are as many styles of beauty as there are visions of happiness.’   Welcome to my vision of happiness ….

PS:  There is learning in most everything if one is open to learning.  Some years ago and not of choice I lost most of what I owned.  All the things that I had moved and moved and moved with and which had enabled me to make each place that my daughters and I arrived in, a home in a jiffy.  What I now have is very little.  And it is not of any significant value.  Were it to be auctioned I imagine it might buy a bag of soggy chips but that is the sum of it.  There are some pretty things, there are my father’s plants, and of course there are books but what were always referred to as our ‘things’ are gone.  Most of what I have is second hand Ikea.  And here is the lesson.  I worried and worried that my skimpy collection would be ridiculous in this space.  I had japed about living with no furniture but I had serious misgivings that we would simply  look ludicrous.  As it transpires, when you have bones as beautiful as this place has you can artfully arrange a very few things (and I  speak as a magpie who may finally be embracing her suffocated inner minimalist going forward) and hey presto bongo … house beautiful.  Rather like the notion that Audrey Hepburn or Sophia Loren could wear a bin-bag and be elegantly alluring.  It turns out that it’s not a notion at all but rather it is a solid, unassailable truth.

And if you are wondering … the place that stole our hearts at the very start?  Is still under construction.  And the place that wouldn’t have us for six months?  Still to let.

I asked the faithful light

Diu absentia … long in absence I have been.  I make no apologies.  It’s just a bit of life in my life.  Nothing dramatic.  No imprisonment, no hospitalisation nothing really to write home about.  Nothing to write about.  Except write I will.  It’s what I do.  Potted and neatly in a nutshell I have been moving rather a lot these past two months – US to England, England to France, France to England, England to France – friends and relics (stet) and Christmas with my most loved.  In Grenoble a temporary tiny flatlet with a view of snow topped mountains and on February 1 moving all I own from the flat in Cantal that I persist in calling home because it’s where I feel home, to our permanent Grenoble place-until-summer.  And beautiful it is.  But more of that another time.

No shadows lurking in my cupboard, nothing to make me startle and stare wide-eyed in horror, just life and settling and I will give you more of it, I promise … much more.

Shadows and startling seem to be the order of things in this world just now.  I rather feel that people are having to wear their most politically correct attire for dread of offending someone.  Anyone!  But I have always been the gal to stick her head above the trench and get it picked off by a beady eyed sniper far away out of sight on the other side of no-man’s land.  So I have a commentary on the world at large.  It is unhappy, it is uncomfortable and it is unpalatable for many.  For many others it is hopeful because it has been increasingly uncomfortable and unpalatable these umpteen years and they desire that there will be green shoots which might give they and their loved ones a future in what has been their shiny world rusted and corroded to dust.  Whether I agree or disagree with either side is neither here nor there but I  give a gentle reminder that alongside it’s bolder, brasher brother ‘Greed’, that ‘Fear’ is the greatest eroder of hope, of decency, of love that we, as humans  have in our armoury of weapons of mass self-destruction.  Try not to be led by fear.  Try instead, to be led by love.  It is, after all la fête de St Valentin who was beaten, stoned and decapitated under the rule of Claudius because, put simply, he believed that young lovers should be allowed to choose to marry as Christians.  Choice.  That’s the thing old Valentine was about and he suffered a particularly appalling death for his conviction.  In 269 AD.  Please let me trust that we have evolved and progressed in almost 2,000 years.  Just please.

My picture, which shows a rather perfect half (insert favourite cheese) moon, sentinel above a stone tower whose keepers can’t make their minds up whether to restore it’s authentic stone or leave it suffocated by the corset of concrete rendered upon it some aeons ago by zealous betterers, taken in the last 10 days in Gieres, a pretty commune just outside Grenoble it is offered for this week’s photo challenge captioned ‘Shadow’ (you can find the glories of the entire gallery here) – the moon’s shadow may not be apparent but it is there and, I would postulate, is not alarming at all.

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PS:  The title is taken from Cat Stevens’ (one of the enduring loves of my life) beautiful song ‘Moonshadow’.  Here are the lyrics and, as a bonus, a lovely clip of the man who stole a little of my heart in nineteen seventy-something singing it …. give them a read if you will – if I ever lose my mouth –  I won’t have to talk ….

Moonshadow

Oh, I’m bein’ followed by a moonshadow, moon shadow, moonshadow—
Leapin and hoppin’ on a moonshadow, moonshadow, moonshadow—

And if I ever lose my hands, lose my plough, lose my land,
Oh if I ever lose my hands, Oh if I won’t have to work no more.

And if I ever lose my eyes, if my colours all run dry,
Yes if I ever lose my eyes, Oh if I won’t have to cry no more.

Oh, I’m bein’ followed by a moonshadow, moon shadow, moonshadow—
Leapin and hoppin’ on a moonshadow, moonshadow, moonshadow—

And if I ever lose my legs, I won’t moan, and I won’t beg,
Yes if I ever lose my legs, Oh if I won’t have to walk no more.

And if I ever lose my mouth, all my teeth, north and south,
Yes if I ever lose my mouth, Oh if I won’t have to talk…

Did it take long to find me? I asked the faithful light.
Did it take long to find me? And are you gonna stay the night?

Cat Stevens

In chaos there is fertility

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.

I offer you this little bauble as my entry to this weeks WordPress Photo Challenge titled Chaos and you can see all the other fabulous entries here.

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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:

In dulci jubilo

I could have called this post ‘where there’s muck there’s brass’ which, if you are British you will know instantly is an old saying from the North of England  that means ‘where there’s sh*t, there’s money’.  But given that many of my readers are not British and on account of the much more important fact that I wanted to give you all a bonus at the end for being SO patient with me as I clawed my way back from the arrid desert of a dastardly writer’s block, I have opted for the title above.

The image was taken in April when we were back in our beloved Cantal for a few days and took the opportunity for a longish hike which promised a waterfall.

Alert as ever, my bat-like hearing was teased by a low humming which rose steadily to a gutteral grumble and finally a spluttering roar as rounding a corner on the craggy track we were ambling along, I was confronted by this.  A tractor with a tank on the back spraying cow dung on the field.  Muck spreading in fact.  Actually, I should say that our olfactory glands were alert to the identity of the machine long before we spied him.

I will forgive you for wondering what on earth this has to do with the weekly photo challenge this week titled Jublilant.  Even for me, this might seem a stretch.  But bear with, do.  In France the farmers always look positivily euphoric when they get the opportunity to splash some dung about.  They sit in the cabs of their tractors with beatific smiles seemingly wafted to an odorous corner of paradise.  I have no explanation for this.  Perhaps you can help me out?  But I do promise you I have studied the phenomena and it is a truism.  The grumpy growers I have seen in England scowling from their cockpit, nose invisibly pegged, mouth set in an inpenetrable line, eyes stony and unyielding are a world away from these merry manure slingers  and even though my nose may be wrinkling decorously at the fetid stench they are generating, they always upgrade my mood as they lift a paw casually from the steering wheel, like John Wayne riding one handed across the range, and bestow upon their mildly stunned audience a  raptuous and infectious grin.

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PS:  I promised you a bonus and a bonus you shall have.  And an explanation.  When I saw the title I closed my eyes and imagined myself for a moment on Christmas Eve, the wireless turned on as I potter through the preparations for the big feast the following day listening to The Choir of Kings College, Cambridge sing carols and hoping this will be one of them.

If you are of my vintage, you will remember that Mike Oldfield produced a thoroughly exhuberent instrumental version.  Here are Pans People,  dream date of every boy of my age and every girls aspiration joyously dancing on BBC Top of The Pops in 1975.

You might have a favourite, I love both and I particularly love that  In Dulci Jublilo means ‘in sweet rejoicing’ which is exactly what I am doing since I purged my clogged creative channel.

Coup de Cœur – Part Six: Do you see what I see?

An occasional series chronicling the tale of the renovation of a former medieval watch-tower in southern France …..

The previous owner of the house was a photographer of some talent.  He could make the silkiest purse out of a lady pigs ear, of this I am certain.  When we looked at his wonderful images on the numerous websites that carried Maison Carrée to her adoring public eager to stay for a few days and sample the delights of his culinary skill as well as the comfortable and welcoming interior she offered, we never once worried about wall coverings.  Downstairs was pristine white and upstairs had some sort of nice neutrally wallpaper.  When we arrived to view what turned out to be the Wreck of the Hesperus, one of the stand-out moments was the realisation of what that nice neutrally  wallpaper actually was.  Not wallpaper in fact.  Not fabric.  Nothing so outré for our Monsieur.  Nay, nay and thrice I say nay … he’d gone a whole new road – a positive Route Nationale, a Motorway, an Interstate Highway.  I can imagine the sprightly conversation he had with himself inside his head:

‘What shall I cover the upstairs walls with?’ 

‘How about floor, old chap ..?’

‘You genius!  Floor!  Of course – floor is the way forward for these walls.  And shall we perchance wallpaper the floor?’

‘Don’t be ridiculous.  Obviously not.  That is an absurd notion’. 

And so it was.  Laminate clip together floor.  But not just any laminate clip-together floor.  Oh no!  This was laminate clip-together bargain basement, below economy starter range floor.  The floor that the salesman guides you too first before pointing out that absolutely anything at all that you choose from here will be better, even spending tuppence halfpenny more and thus securing himself an extra portion of fries on the commission he earns.  That sort of laminate clip-together floor.  And it had been slathered all over the walls.  Look closely at the top picture …. do you see what I see?

 

 

 

 

Having done as bidden by the kind M. Terminateur so that his crew could busy themselves ridding our roof of those pesky vrillettes we occupied ourselves as best we could, whenever we could (remember it’s a four hour round trip from North West to South West tip of le Cantal on winding backroads descending and scaling deep gorges and negotiating tight épingles (épingles de cheveux being hairpins) and though I am presently living in the land of mahusive distances and ludicrously cheap fuel, I honestly think it’s a stretch  for a daily commute that you aren’t getting paid for.  I was polishing the staircase for entertainment one day when there was a thunderous crack followed by a thud, and a whisper later, a riotous crash.  I dropped my bottle of special wood oil and rushed up the stairs (killing the chances of the oil drying to a gratifying sheen in the process) to find HB² looking frankly irritatingly smug.  He had taken a crowbar and jemmied a generous sliver of the offending floor from the wall and underneath looked rather  interesting.

 

 

 

 

He proceeded to slice his way through both the front bedrooms and the back one – the one with it’s cleverly placed shower delivering to a spontaneous auditorium at the back of the house for the ladies of the village, should he decide to give of his famed full frontal peep show once more.  I’m considering selling tickets if we get desperate enough that we need extra funds.  By lunchtime the walls were fully delaminated and revealing the secrets of their pre-veneered days.  My nerves were in shreds because this stuff was razor sharp and entirely rigid.  Two Brains clearly should have been wearing a helmet but instead favoured an interesting series of movements that echoed accurately St Vitus Dance to avoid being brained or scalped by the merest slither of a second.  We had a car full of laminate to take to the lovely man at the déchètterie with the enviable view.   After two p.m.  Obviously.  This is rural France and everything stops for lunch.  For two hours.  It took multiple trips in Franck our trusty unalluring but reasonably priced car and a deep and meaningful conversation to ascertain whether this vile material computes as wood.  It doesn’t.  It is to be viewed in the same way as a carnivore regards nut cutlets.  It simply is not meat.  Nor indeed wood.

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Do you see what I see ….? It’s Franck skulking sneakily waiting for his next load of laminated booty

 

Meanwhile back at the ranch The Brains was eulogising over what had been uncovered.  Previously we had paid scant attention to the one unplastered wall on the stairwell merely having a cursory discussion over whether we should give it too a smooth finish.  But in  that deluge of lethal laminate everything changed.  It was akin to the moment in Carl Sagan’s Contact when Jodie Foster sees the universe with fresh eyes from a beach somewhere out ‘there’ that she has landed on after being lunged through space at a squillion miles an hour.   In the comedy shower-closet bedroom are exposed the same  glorious planks, cut by someone with an eye for rigidly even lines that rivals my mother’s.  By way of explanation – my mother is a wonderful letter writer but has always shunned the slip of lined paper popped under the page to guide the pen evenly approach and consequently, although she commences elegantly (even now in her mid-eighties) she rapidly starts to wander at an angle so that by the time she reaches the bottom of the page she is writing at a 45° slope.  It’s a  foible that no-one ever mentions, but all notice.  These walls were clearly made by a kindred charpentiere.  They are of tongue-in-groove construction, about 9″-10″ wide and slender.   They slot together very well sporting the odd large flat headed nail to complete the perfectly rustic and rather naïve effect.

 

 

 

 

 

And still the excitement continued.  The layout of the house, and we had assumed the original layout, was a small landing with doors at right angles to one another.  One into a bedroom with a square double doorframe through to a further room and the other into Peeping Tom’s Joy – the room with the freestanding shower in front of the window.  But taking the cladding off the walls had revealed a door from PTJ into the back bedroom.    This poses new questions about how we lay out the upstairs.  Our thought process is fluid and a teeny bit erratic so this revalation just adds a zesty new spritz to the operation.

 

 

 

 

On the other side of the wall were further, piquant delights – loose hessian overlaid with several layers of historic wallpaper.  A couple of florals, a groovy grey linear embossed which immediately took me back to the dull horrors of my childhood and my favourite, a sort of squarial pattern each square containing a picture – a flowerhead here, a windmill there, there again a boat, and even the makings of a medieval town.  I wonder about the person lying in bed looking at the pictures – I wonder if they had ever travelled from Marcolès and whether they dreamed of getting on that boat and searching for treasures in far-off lands.  In fact we know that a very tall Russian lady lived in the house for decades last century – maybe she was put in a boat to cross the sea or maybe her journey escaping White Russia as a small child was overland.  Either way it must have been arduous, gruelling and not a little frightening.

 

 

 

 

I am reminded of another house long ago and far away in England.  The girls and I lived in the grounds of the, by then closed, only Jewish Public School in the country (US readers Public School obscurely means Private School in  England).  Carmel College.  There was a house called ‘Wall House’ which was perfectly invisible except for a front door with a letter box.  In it lived a very very grand Russian lady of advancing years who wore astonishing velvet and brocade ensembles which cascaded to her ankles and conjured up vivid reminders of an age so bygone that I never knew it.  She invited me to take tea.  I was seated on a glamorous and very upright silk upholstered  chair.  She called out in Russian and clapped her jewelled hands smartly whereupon and instantly  in the corner of the room a shabby bundle of cloth shifted revealing a remarkably decrepit and faintly moth-eaten man.  He bowed and moved into the kitchen from whence he returned after a pause during which she and I continued a rather formal and resolutely non-probing conversation, bearing a silver tray complete with very ornate fine porcelain teapot and guilded and delicately painted teacups with their dainty matching plates on which were slices of terrifically inebriated fruit cake.  He served us sombrely and then went back to his corner, disappearing like the Psammead into his quicksand of sheets.  I suppose he had been with her all his life.  The world is full of surprises and some of them are quite uncomfortable.

Anyhow, there was a statuesque Russian lady for many years in Marcolès.   Hold that thought.  Particularly the height.  Because the other curiosity hidden behind the disgusting veneer is a series of oval holes.  You might remember there is one that casts down on the stairwell from the privy giving it an air of anything but privacy.  But there are more.  Some have been boarded over and some stuffed with newspaper.  But why?  They are reminiscent of those holes you stick your head through on an English Pier and have your photo taken as a pin-up girl in an eye popping bikini or a muscle-bound man in striped bathers.  The odd thing is the height of them.  If you wanted to stick your head through them you would have to be a VERY lanky lady indeed.  I imagine they were crude internal portholes to let some light into the middle of the house but I rather like the image of a Frenchman on stilts, complete with compulsary moustache peering through various cut-out holes just for laughs.

 

 

 

 

PS:  When I arrived back after taking the very last load of the offending clip-together laminate flooring to the dump (and we have kept a plank as a grim reminder of the way it was) the elderly couple opposite were arriving back from a toddle out.  They meandered across the street and asked me how it was going.  Oh, really good I regailed them.  We’re progressing well with the clear out of all the dreadful things – can you imagine, he had cheap laminate flooring on the walls.  Lunacy – he was clearly mad.  They nodded in that slightly absent way that polite people have and took their leave.  As they opened their front door, I swear I could see laminate flooring on …. the walls.  Just another oh bugger moment and a further reminder to self to keep thy big mouth shut.

The bonus is entirely to indulge my mother and the child-me that she raised – she used to play Johnny Mathis to us on the gramaphone in the drawing room on rainy days amongst so many other 45s of Unicorns and Doctor Kildaire, Nellie the Elephant and Dusty Springfield and Ferry Cross the Mersey and Doris Day, as we puzzled our puzzles, stuck our fuzzy felt and honed the skills required for taking tea with grand ancient Russian ladies  by making our own tea party for the teddy bears.  Those halcyon days when I didn’t question her lack of ability to keep a straight line when writing her comments on my report cards or the milk order because she was just simply ‘My Mummy’ ….

If you enjoyed this you might like to catch up on previous installments by typing Coup de Coeur into the search box in the side bar.  The more the merrier at this party – so much more fun that way. 

Every time a bell rings an Angel gets his wings

In villages all over the world bells mark time.  They mark the hours, often the half hours and even the quarter hours through the day and sometimes throughout the night.  They call to prayer, they toll for the dead, they ring out joyously the news that two people are wed.  They sound their eccastic pleasure on Christmas morning and in France they are silent from Good Friday til they sound sonorously, building slowly, softly, increasingly exuberantly on Easter Sunday. After they have flown to Rome to be blessed and have dropped their goodies for the worthy on their flight home, of course.   Here in my village we have eight-til-late bells tolling out the hours and giving a single bong for the half hour.  I rather think I know their secret – shhh, don’t tell but … they are mechanised.  However a human person, possibly the Priest himself rings the bells for Mass.  He’s a dashing figure who wears his Catholic robes with a panache that the kings of couture would applaud on the catwalk.  He is also quite clearly tone deaf and devoid of any rhythmn.  A far cry from the rehearsed peels of my village church in England.  That was melodious this is frankly cacophonous.

Church bells to me are the soundtrack of ordinary life.  They mark out that rhythm that man has lived to for centuries.  It matters not whether you are part of the Church. It matters not, indeed whether you have any religious faith.  The bells provide the backdrop to life itself.

My birthday is at the end of September.  My youngest daughter came to stay for a week and wanted to take me for lunch.  Her treat.  This is a HUGE deal when the daughter in question is a student.  We drove to Brioude.  Its a town I have wanted to explore for a long while, just over the border in the Haute Loire (also part of the Auvergne Region).  We had very delicious lunch and then walked in the rather insistent mizzle that marked my birthday out from the WHOLE of the rest of the sunshiney month.  We heard the bells of the Basillica and we knew instantly from their sober tone that they were marking a funeral.  No-one needed to tell us to be quiet as we passed the building, the bells did it for us.  And somehow, those bells wrapped us for a moment in the huddled sadness of the group waiting to greet their loss for the last time.  Brought us to a halt, illicited respect.  Yes, bells are the soundtrack to ordinary life and that soundtrack is played in simple notes that mortals simply recognise and divine.

These bells are in Sainte-Anastasie in the Cezallier Cantallien.  They sit in a fine clocher-peigne which for non French speakers translates as a ‘bell comb’.  It describes perfectly the open structure that prettily suspends the bells rather using than a tower to house them.

DSCF4013PS:  Zuzu, George Bailey’s ‘little ginger snap’ is quoted in the title … at the end of the magic that is Frank Capra’s ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ squeezed tight by her daddy whose Guardian Angel (second class), Clarence has literally been his salvation she tells him this fact.   Her teacher told her so ….

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This piece was originally written two years ago, in response to The Daily Press weekly photo challenge (Extra)Ordinary – all other entries are here

Coup de Cœur – Part Three: I beg your pardon …

I’m no magician and smoke and mirrors are not part of any repetoire I possess however much I might sometimes wish they were.   In arrant contrast, it was abundantly clear that the incumbent owner of the house was a maestro of the art.  What greeted us was a filthy mess though there were still a number of rather lovely pieces in the house.  But we had this feeling, this sense that it can be, will be, beautiful again.  We signed the Acte that made us the legal owners exactly a year after we first viewed it.  A year that will remain forever tatooed on my little brain and a year that provides the reference for my novel in progress.

Three months after signing the Acte, the process of cajoling the previous owner (who mostly spends his time in Marseilles and seems mostly to be unable to leave his bed though he was beyond vigorous when we met) to come and take what he wanted from the house before the start of les grandes vacances on 1st July or thereabouts, was ongoing.  The village had been totally and remarkably supportive of us and we had agreed that they could use the ground floor as an Office de Tourisme and that they could revert to the years old tradition of using the house in their famed Nuits de Marcolès.   In France if the owner of the effects wants them you have to dance a lengthy gavotte before you can retain them or eject them.  We danced.  The village stowed things upstairs to make way for their tourist office.  We continued to dance.  The summer festivites came and went.  We still danced.  Le Monsieur came and went sporadically and things disappeared.  He was clearly suffering from the cold further south in Mediterranean Marseille because he decided to rip the radiators from their moorings excavating chunks of wall with them.  All this is legal by the way.  We carried on dancing.   Finally about a year ago word came that he had taken all he wanted.  Exhausted, we threw off our Red Shoes and stopped dancing.

I drove south to my newly empty house.  Wind back.  Empty?  Nah!  Every stick of junk he possessed was  still there.  Somehow my enchanting house, the place I fell in love with on the internet, remember, had turned into a cold, unwelcoming landfill site.  We had known it was impossible to walk across the grenier (attic) floor, my husband had kept the worst secrets of the cave (cellar) from me on the basis that the ladder was dodgy.  Lies, all despicable lies – I’m quite the mountain goat on the quiet and I bound up and down ladders quite nimbly, thank you.  But I chose not to argue, nor look, frankly fearful of what I might find.  The truth was far worse than any imagined fiction.  And sandwiched in the middle of top and underground floors are two others, which somehow seemed to have sprouted their own detritus.   Abundantly.
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Enter the town.  Monsieur le Maire de Marcolès is officially my hero.  His assistant can clearly trace her ancestry to celestial angels.  The town would see to the emptying.  The least they could do in the face of our saving their jewel (they call it their emblem) … well actually they didn’t need to, but my goodness me we snapped their hands off with the speed and certainty of a Kingfisher skewering it’s supper.

The town workers (generally referred to as les ouvriers) set about their task.  They fitted it in between their routine and other jobs.  I journeyed down after a month and was overjoyed.  A week later I went again and could not believe what greeted me – there was even more debris than the week before.  This bizarre and unwelcome routine continued for weeks.  Smile-despair-smile-despair.  Every single time I thought there was nothing else to unearth, the jolly ouvriers found more.  Not that I was complaining, they were moving the damned stuff.  And it was just stuff.  Lots and lots of stuff.  The physical incarnation of a clearly disturbed mind.  The demented collection of a frenzied, and almost certainly certifiable magpie.

In November, we were in the Mairie (town hall, if you will) discussing something or other with the beatified assistant when the chief ouvrier came staggering in.  He looked at us, shrugged the most glorious gaelic shrug I have EVER seen and told us we were entirely and clearly mad to have taken on the house.  The beatifeic one laughed angellically.  I felt sick.

Christmas loomed.  We were to spend it in England.  HB² arrived at my mother’s house on Christmas Eve.  On Christmas Day (his birthday incidentally), he checked email.  The beauteous creature who is the assistant to the mayor of Marcolès (I’ve recommended her for canonisation) had sent us a note:   ‘The house is empty.  Happy Christmas’.  We danced.

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PS:  The picture shows me clasping a rose.  A rose plucked by the Mayor the first time we showed him inside a house he remembered from his childhood throughout his adolescence and for a large chunk of his adult life when it was always, always part of village festivities.  Until the previous denizen moved in.  The rose-bush flourishes on the side of the house.  The Mayor has taken it upon himself to keep it tended in our absence.  And tells me whenever he has pruned, or re-fastened it to the wall with a liberal sparkle in his eye – sparkling at ladies being something I have noted, he is more than rather good at.   I may not have been promised a rose garden, but I beg your pardon – I got one tended by the highest official in town!

And just because I can and I fancy giving you a bonus … here’s Moira Shearer again but this time strutting her red shoes  to Joy Division’s ‘She’s Lost Control’  … let’s face facts, I know the feeling.

Catch up on the previous installments of this noble saga here which contains a link to part one