Still at it, here is my idea for Thursdays. Actually, it is decidedly not my idea, or rather the original form is not but the notion of using the concept on this blog is my own. Kudos me. Even if it’s microscopic. Thursday, in the spirit of a popular hashtag ‘Throwback Thursday’, will be devoted to sharing something previously written that might merit a fresh airing. Or might not. That is entirely up to your own opinion. Delighted or disgusted you can record comments and I promise I’ll embrace you. Here in my Half-Baked world we have a strictly no fights no bites policy.
This post was originally published in 2014.
When I was at school I learned French. In fact I began learning at the aged eight in Mrs Noble’s class. Mrs Noble liked me, having despised my older brother (the loathing was mutual). Given that I generally hated my brother (also mutual and absolutely compulsory at the ages we were), I loved Mrs Noble, which might have been why she liked me. Life is like that. We tend to like those that love us. Unless they are insane stalkers. But that really is another story.
I adored the sounds of the words and I enjoyed learning. At secondary school I was, to be fair, generally mediocre at the grammar and indeed only actually began to make friends with conjugating after moving here in September last year. But I perfected my accent and frankly I was waiting for the call to star in the remake of ‘Les Enfants de Paradis’, France’s 1943 answer to ‘Gone With The Wind’. I listened to Jane Birkin breathing her way through Je T’aimeMoi Non Plus and wanted to be her.
Adulthood and a cheese business that took me back and forth to Paris to the gastronomic chaos that is Rungis Market. Ad hoc travels to Provence, Normandy, The Auvergne in search of the perfect morceau to bear triumphantly back to Berkshire in the overstuffed boot of our car and present to our customers who would sigh in ecstasy and run home to devour their new best friend with gusto and self-congratulatory glee that they had found this ‘maaaarvlus little place’ which sold all things French-Cheese without their having to bother at all with la manche.
During all this time, I listened French. I loved the sound. Compare the way that airport is said in English – two clipped syllables uttered in a reasoned monotone – with the same word in French. L’aeroport. The aer has the lightness of a soufflé and that for me is French. That for me defines what I adore about the language. Of course regionally and even more microscopically the way words are pronounced, the way sentences are constructed, varies. Standard French, the same as BBC English is not the standard at all. My radio station of choice when out in my car and indeed in my home, now that I have discovered the joys of listening on-line to the wireless, is RBA 104.4 Bort les Orgues. The main reason for my slavish devotion is the woman I know as ‘Over Enunciating Announcer Lady’. She is bliss. When she does her petits annonces I am captivated by her emphasis. ‘PerDU, un beagLE tricoloooooR a Bort les OrgUH’ or even more deliciously the moment when behind the wheel shortly before Christmas I heard her utter ‘Soob Millie Mettre aRAY ….. a Champs sur TarentaiNUH’ and realized it was a shout out for The Husband with Two Brains’ presentation on trous noirs (Black Holes) and his observatory in Hawaii. Her fabulous iteration gilds my days and she has unwittingly helped my French from stuttering to fluttering over the last six months.
That moment driving to Lyon in April when I realized the strange sensation I was experiencing was seeing Spring burst forth to greet me with its bumptious greens and yellows and pinks and whites and mauves in great swathes before my eyes is replicated in my sudden ability to assimilate and respond to a barrage of French with relative ease. But even in areas with harsher tones the words have elegance to me. Somehow Tortue sounds so much more evocative than Tortoise particularly if you can perfect that mysterious swallowed ‘r’ that French babies absorb by osmosis in order to bewitch dull English girls like me later in life.
I have lived in Italy and speak decent Italian, I learned Russian for six years at school but for me French is candied grace and refinement. If it were a scent it would be captured in a bottle made of a glass so fragile that you would think it was a bubble. Even in Cantal where we live which forms part of the Auvergne region (now wed to Rhône-Alpes as one of the super-regions created during the panda-like François Hollande’s administration and where the accent is renowned as being the hardest to understand in France. Even for native French speakers. Say Grenoble. Gren. Oble. Now say it with a French accent (it is after all French). Can you hear the chicly swallowed G? The way the ble whispers away at the end? That’s French. I speak it comme une vache espagnole but I hear it fluently. And it is music in my ears.
PS: My title is taken from a song by the brilliant Tracy Chapman. She was Talkin’ Bout a Revolution – something else the French do rather well ….
It should be noted that this piece was originally written for a writing competition … it didn’t make the cut but I rather felt it worthy of a place here nonetheless …. you are free to agree or disagree or remain Swiss and neutral. And the photographs of mountains? For me learning the language is like walking in the mountains: sometimes the climbs seem endless and the struggle never ending, you feel you won’t ever reach the top, you feel the task impossible but when you turn the corner on the path and take stock of how far you have climbed and breath the air and survey that vista, the effort evaporates. And aside from that, I simply love them.
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.
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…
Imagine for a moment what it might be like if every single day were just the same as the one before and the ones to come stretching endlessly ahead taunting with their refusal to give any hope. No light at the end of the tunnel, treated like an object to be scuttled past hurredly by those who prefer not to be tainted by the invisible plague you so clearly carry. To have the humiliation of having to beg for the odd coin from those same scurrying strangers. To have no roof, no bed, no blankets. To be reliant on a bundle of stinking rags and decaying cardboard to bring some warmth whatever the season and including the biting depths of winter. To have no clue if the ache in your belly might be assuaged at any point today by some sort of meagre nourishment. To wear the cloak of invisibility simultaneously with the suit of shame by the crowds that fix their gaze anywhere but at you, assuming as they do that somehow you deserve to be where you are. In the gutter.
My friend, actually HB²’s oldest friend, Gee often remarks that we are all of us ever two steps from the gutter. There but for the grace of something or other. There we could be. Gee and I have both faced a future with nothing. Possessions sold for puny pickings in a seemingly pathetic attempt to keep our battered boats floating. Both of us fell hard. At different times and neither knowing the other. I can assure you it is levelling and I suspect far too many of you have similar stories.
Homelessness is a cause close to my heart and I wanted to do something tangible at Christmas. Having signed up for the big Christmas Eve surprisingly baudy bash for the old and alone, I was niggled by the notion that what I had intended to do was something of value to those who are sleeping rough. This city has good systems in place to aid les sans abris (homeless). Very very good, but there are still those who have no place to go. So I took the money that I would have spent on presents for the family and I bought the makings of care packages. I researched the subject thoroughly and some of what I found was quite shocking. There were several articles that cautioned me against doing what my heart screamed was the right thing for fear of causing offence. Don’t misunderstand me, I entirely agree that swooping down like an evangelising buzzard wearing a judgemental halo and a self-righteous expression would be offensive, but given that we are often urged not to give money for fear of perpetuating drugs or alcohol abuse, it begins to feel as though there is a danger that people are being given the ultimate get-out via the interweb, the excuse to do nothing at all. Being a bolshy bird, I ignored the advice, took note of the various lists that seemed to make sense and sallied forth to the shops to buy what I could afford. Gloves, socks, chocolate, granola bars, toothpaste and brush, liquid soap, wet wipes, tissues – there was more but I don’t want to bore you with my shopping list. I wrapped them with the care I would put into any Christmas gift which is not to say they were exactly elegant but that the thought was evident.
On Christmas morning, surprisingly spruce from the night before, The Bean and I set out to the places we knew we would find those whose celebration had not started and was not expected to. I sat with each in turn, some petted the dog, some were deeply suspicious, some less so. I talked to them. I let them talk to me. We are, after all, simply humans and even though my French can still be less than polished when speaking to strangers, the fact is that decency and kindness disolve barriers.
One of those I sat with, I sit with regularly. He calls me ‘Princesse’ or rather he mostly calls me Princess, occasionally I am promoted to ‘la reine’ (the Queen). His story is this: he had it all – wife, children, good job. He worked very hard at his job and often worked late and away. She had an affair and asked for a divorce. He preferred that she keep their house for the sake of his children. New man moved into his old house and his ex wife and his children had a new life, a life that he didn’t figure in. He began to feel increasingly alienated from his children. He became depressed and began to drift at work. He lost his job. He was unable to pay his ex-wife child support so she stopped him for seeing his children. He turned to drinking and his alcoholism spiralled out of control. He spent his rent money on booze and soon he lost his roof. It’s a simple and achingly familiar tale. It’s a tale that should resonate with us all because I promise you that only one thread of our fragile lives has to unravel and we can find ourselves sitting next to my friend begging for the money to feed a habit that blanks out the bitterness of reality. I met him once in the local Intermarché buying groceries – he was armed with his food tokens and was horrified to see me. I passed him by and pretended not to see him out of respect. This man did not want la princesse to see his circumstances even though he knows full well that I know he doesn’t live in a hunky dory homes and gardens centrefold house and that a roof other than a canopy of stars is an occasional luxury in his life. Respect. Along with decency and kindness, respect is the silent gift that we can give to all, no matter what their appearance.
All of those I gave parcels to were happy to receive and happy to chat for a few minutes. It was the least I could do. To remember that their faces are the faces of someone’s child, someone’s sibling, someone’s parent perhaps. Not at all the face of someone who has chosen to be faceless and passed over as we hurry about our frightfully important lives.
The picture was taken on my recent visit to my mother in England. I generally don’t take pictures of people, in fact I do everything in my power to avoid photographing strangers, feeling as I do that it is an invasion of privacy to snap and post on whatever Social Media forum is the flavour in favour. Actually in France it is an offence to publish an image of a person without their express permission. So my picture is a sheepy face in a flock. He is the odd one out and is standing apart from all the rest. It seems to fit what I am saying.
PS: Because there must always be a PS, the title comes from a song that I first heard as a young girl. It affected me then as it affects me now. It is touching and too familiar and no matter whether we are talking of London, as Ralph McTell is in the song, though he originally penned it as ‘Streets of Paris’, or another place entirely, the fact is that all these years later the scourge of homelessness has only got worse. And the very least we can do is to not be arrogant enough to imagine that our fortune is in some way an immunisation, to not judge but rather to be sympathetic and mindful that a kind word, a smile and indeed a coin, even if that coin gets spent on something we disapprove of, is far preferable to turning our stoney faces away and pretending we do not see. There but for the grace, so my beg is to please – be graceful.
Streets of London
Have you seen the old man In the closed-down market Kicking up the paper, With his worn out shoes? In his eyes you see no pride Hand held loosely at his side Yesterday’s paper telling yesterday’s news
So how can you tell me you’re lonely, And say for you that the sun don’t shine. Let me take you by the hand and lead you through the streets of London I’ll show you something to make you change your mind
Have you seen the old girl Who walks the streets of London Dirt in her hair and her clothes in rags? She’s no time for talking, She just keeps right on walking Carrying her home in two carrier bags.
In the all night cafe At a quarter past eleven, Same old man sitting there on his own Looking at the world Over the rim of his tea-cup, Each tea lasts an hour Then he wanders home alone
Have you seen the old man Outside the Seaman’s Mission Memory fading with the medal ribbons that he wears In our winter city, The rain cries a little pity For one more forgotten hero And a world that doesn’t care
I have a theory that we are each of us born an age which is our default real age our whole lives through. For example, I have known babies and toddlers like tiny old men and women and equally I have known consenting adults of several decades who are consistent in their infancy. My age, I am sure you are fascinated to know, is six.
At six years old I was taken on my first skiing holiday. We travelled on what used to be called ‘The Boat Train’ from London Victoria leaving at night, to Dover whence we boarded a ferry and then another train to take us across Europe.
I don’t remember much about the first train, I do remember my mother getting increasingly taut when my father refused to stop and ask directions despite having no clue where on earth he was going in a vast after dark London. I now know this is a cliché of male-female behavior but at six years old I merely thought it hugely entertaining that my mother was making hissing noises like a deflating bike tyre and gradually turning purple under her (entirely natural if you please) platinum blonde coiffeur, my father seemingly oblivious (which remained his constant default) to the combustable woman beside him. I suppose he must have found the station and parked the car and we must have taken the train to Dover but I don’t remember it at all. I remember a dead dog floating in the dock at Calais the following morning which instilled an unfair prejudice to the place that lasted over thirty years until I visited on a whim and found it to be not unpleasant at all.
We were greeted by our ‘courier‘ who was Austrian and called Ernst, had blonde hair, was very kind and thoughtful and whom I liked tremendously – in fact, if I close my eyes, I can still see him in his bright blue turtle neck which matched his eyes and jeans a shade or three darker. I imagine he was in his just-crowned twenties and so, to a six year old with an array of older male cousins, he fit nicely into a niche that I was comfortable with. For reasons I cannot discern I remained convinced that he was Norwegian for many years until, in my forties trotting out a memory or asking a vital and, til then dorment question or idly wondering if Ernst would still be waiting for me, I included this erroneous fact in my chatter and Mother corrected me. I admit to feeling momentarily crushed. I haven’t any idea why I thought he was Norwegian – I’m not even sure I really knew where Norway is. But he was so nice and smiling and friendly and he wore a large shiny badge loudly declaring the firm he worked for, all beguiling features to a six year old girl positively beyond effervescent with excitement. He ushered us onto the train and into our compartment which had, joy of joys, ‘couchettes’. This meant that at night we could turn the deep leather bench seats into bunk beds. Imagine the absolute heaven of that! I fancy we must also have slept on the ferry but sadly the shocking incident of the deceased dog at dawn eclipsed all else and I have no recollection at all of a cabin. After some while there was a mighty wheezing and blowing and the noise of metal being tapped upon metal and a scrunch and a lurch and off we groaned gradually, gradually gaining momentum. I can still remember the sound – not so much the rhythmic slide and clatter of the wheels on the rails but the chuff-puffing-puff-chuffing. Because we were being pulled by none other than a steam train.
I had only ever been conscious of one steam locomotive before (this was 1967) and that time we had been standing still and chill on the platform of our village railway station, my father, older brother, granny and I, solemly waiting with a crowd of others for Winston Churchill to pass on his final journey to burial after his funeral in London. He had died the day before my younger brother was born. I was four and even at that age I understood that this was momentous and I remember peeping through the steam and knowing the train was carrying a most important cargo and that it was extremely sad. Of course in my reality I was a very grown up six rather than the four any notional calender assumed me to be, which may account for this mature attitude to treating things with respectful gravity and deference.
This steam train, though had my now two year old brother aboard and he was extremely over-excited and equally over-tired. We were subjected to him repetitiously singing ‘I Did It My Way’ (not the whole song, just that line) having been so moved by Frank Sinatra, with whom my mother was smitten, singing on the television, at yet another final concert that wasn’t, when we were waiting in the night to get in the car and set off on our tremendous adventure. Bedtime at that age was six o’clock, except on Tuesday’s when I was allowed to watch ‘Bewitched’ meaning I retired at seven, so the fact that we were catching a night train in London meant we were up giddyingly late.
The journey passed as journeys do with cards and colouring and playing games that involved looking out of the window and spotting things to fit whatever theme my mother had invented in her desperation to keep us amused. Far too often, the bumptious brat would chime up with another chirpy chorus of ‘I Did It My Way’. At regular intervals, possibly to try and stem this vocal flow, Ernst would appear with refreshments in boxes or on trays depending on whether it was a cold or a hot repast. Having never eaten anything from a box before it was beyond exotic and things like cold chicken and salad took on a whole new allure that was positively glamourous to a six-year old. And those little packets of salt and pepper? Thrilling! I didn’t actually use them, you understand and I think I may have been thirty-five before I finally conceded that my little collection of identical squares was serving no useful purpose in my life. When they gave us warm croissants and other viennoisserie for breakfast a life-long and unquenchable obsession with pâtisserie was born.
Whenever the train stopped we were allowed to get off and walk around. I have no idea now where we stopped but it was quite often and it was quite fascinating … up until then I really had no notion that the French Miss Scrivener taught us at school was actually relevant, that people really spoke it. I had no idea that grown men might wear berets just like the one I had to wear to school. And all the while there was Ernst elegantly and seamlessly looking after us, making sure my nine-year old big brother who preferred not to be seen anywhere near his siblings didn’t wander off too far and that we were all back safely on the train in good time for the whistle to blow. I was certainly in love with him and convinced we would get married when I grew up by the time we got to what I imagine may have been Strasbourg. When it was night we slept, or tried to, with the increasingly bawdy toddler still shouting ‘I did it my way’ every time morpheous silently, smoothly snuck in with her soft arms ready for the fall. I decided that I positively did hate him and made a mental note to ask Daddy if it honestly was too late to send him back.
Eventually after what seemed like a month but was probably a day and a half, we reached Innsbruck where we had a break of some while before boarding our onward train. Looking back from the lofty position of having mothered several children, I imagine our mama must have been sleep-deprived and virtually desiccated by this point. Therefore, when she rattled into the cafeteria to extricate my father and I, he in the process of buying my first ever bar of Ritter Chocolate, a hallowed moment to be savoured, not interrupted, it is fair to say that brittle would be the word that described her mood best. She was shrill in her insistence that we were about to miss the train and dragging my older brother and carrying the tot she advanced purposefully towards it and, in fairness, it did indeed appear to be revving up for an imminent departure. My father didn’t question her (he knew his place) and we all boarded and sat neatly in rows. Even the blessèd bellowing boy was decorously calm and still. As the platform official raised his flag and puffed his whistle-blowing cheeks in readiness for the off, all hell let loose and suddenly there was the heroic Ernst banging on the window with one hand and yanking at the carriage door with the other. My mother stared at him glassily as though she had never seen him before in her life and my father didn’t notice at all. But I did notice. I noticed because, be reminded, this was my husband-to-be. I tugged coats and bounced and squeaked and eventually my parents collectively engaged their brains and peered at the apperition now almost glued to the window. He was mouthing something urgently. Father stood and pulled down the little openy bit of the window through which, if tall enough, or lifted by someone who was, you could wave to your adoring public on the platform as you departed. The now near hysterical Ernst managed to emit the word ‘Budapest’ before collapsing. My father gathered us all and shoved us through the door that had dangled Ernst, calling on all his skill as a one-time rugby player of some talent, before it slammed shut behind us, the platform official looked at this disgraceful tangle of gaping fools in disgust and blew his whistle, dropped his flag and the train departed for Hungary.
The actual train was barely a train. It was tiny and the seats were wooden slats but I was certain it had taken us to heaven. So high above the world, so clear the air, so blue the sky, so diamond sparkling the snow. Actually it took us up into the Tyrolienne Alps with which I fell in love as instantly and as deeply as I had with Ernst. The difference was that Ernst, I am ashamed to say, would be replaced many times over as my one object of undying love, but the mountains never will be. And neither will Ritter chocolate which remains a guilty pleasure to this day.
The picture was taken at Les Lacs Robert in the Alpes Belledonne, one of the three mountain ranges, two of them Alps, that surround Grenoble, where I live. We enjoy walking up there. The shot was taken in June. Today being January it is thick with snow and peppered with skiers. The Alps are relatively young mountains as you can tell from their sharp silouette, older mountains have been eroded more and are less craggy, more buxom in appearance. It was the Weekly Photo Challenge labelled ‘Weathered’ that prompted me to post the picture. The gallery is brimming with admirable entries, should you be minded to take a browse.
PS: The title comes from Jerome K Jerome, he who is best known for his wonderful ‘Three Men In A Boat’. This is taken from a short story, ‘The Passing Of The Third Floor Back’, a slightly strange and whimsy tale told with his usual acute eye for characterisation and wry humour. I recommend it if you have an idle half hour – it isn’t arduous nor long. In it, the main character, referred to throughout as ‘The Stranger’ says ‘Nothing, so it seems to me, is more beautiful than the love that has weathered the storms of life, the sweet tender blossom that flowers in the hearts of the young, that too is beautiful. The love of the young for the young, that is the beginning of life. But the love of the old for the old, that is the beginning of – of things longer’. Miss Devine responds ‘‘But are not all things beautiful?’ I find the observation of the stranger quite lovely and something one can only hope one is fortunate enough to attain.
To square the circle, when I saw that very first steam train taking the greatest of men to his final rest, I was on the station platform of the same village in which Jerome’s Three Men noted that ‘the reaches woo one for a sunny sail or for a moonlight row, and the country round about is full of beauty’. And there, I shall always be six.
An occasional series chronicling the tale of the restoration of a former medieval watch-tower in southern France …..
It is Monday and the observant among you will note that I have missed two Monday’s in my quest to populate each start of the week day with posts about Marcolès. The gloaters will be congratulating themselves that I had entirely misjudged the calendar. In my world there are no excuses but I do allow reasons. Simply put, the first of the missed Mondays was Christmas Day and, to be entirely frank, I rather thought that you might be otherwise occupied in your own frenzy of something or other. It happens I was engaged with my own Christmas thing and if you behave reasonably decorously, I might even share the detail. I fully intended, however, to start the year with a zip bang boom and publish Part Nine on New Year’s Day. Things, however, reasons indeed can occur with quite breathtaking force and this year, last year as it is now, that is exactly what happened.
My friend John let me know. Our mutual friend, who some of you will have known as ‘Pan’ was found dead on 30th December where she had been lying for two full days with her faithful dog Stewie next to her in a motel room in Maine. I broke down in selfish, desperate, angry tears. I cannot do better than John’s tribute to her, nor the words later written by my friend Embeecee so I am not going to write a tribute to one of the smartest, sweetest, kindest, most genuine, faithful, loyal friends I will ever have. I was humbled by her lifestyle. She drove a huge truck wherein her company had modified the tractor so that she had a tiny weeny kitchen in which she created real food and she lived, when not in the cab of her lorry off-grid in the farthest reaches of Maine and was building what she dubbed her ‘She Shed’ with her own bare hands. She was nothing short of inspirational and should have been a mascot for the millennial trendies who, rightly tout all sorts of ways that we can improve the impact we have on this increasingly throttled and tattered planet of ours. The fact that her footprint or at least her tyre-tracks were mighty was a result of delivering all the stuff that those same entitled, possibly deluded but at least affecting responsible folks needed, wanted, in all weathers, in all conditions and mostly not kind, spoke volumes to me of whom she was. We can and should have feminist icons but the real heroines are just quietly getting on with what is needed and topping it off with a smile. That was Linda. So I will not write a tribute, no. Instead I dedicate not just this episode but every single one in the series past and future to the memory of a woman gone wholly too soon, who had no idea just how rare a mind she was, who was generous to beyond a fault, who was modest and self-depracating who was wise and who gently councelled me as the big sister I never had. Ridiculously and genuinely modest, she was far more concerned with the welfare of those she cared for than for herself. We met over a blackberry cream scone that she had invented. Blackberry will always be my go-to taste of all that is good in humankind hereafter. She had set herself to help with another project I have upcoming. Her reason for offering was so that my husband and I would have more time together. Selfless? She defined it. We fully intended to surpise her with a visit to Marcolès when it is finished. Her life finished too soon … sometimes I get pretty damned fed up and find it ridiculously difficult if not impossible to find the purpose in the way things are.
One of the last comments she left on this series (Part Seven actually) contained the words ‘you know your photos are art, right?’ They actually aren’t – I come from the little lauded myopic point and shoot school of photography. But. She had an idea that I could produce a book of my pictures and words which the tourist industry of Cantal could use to promote the area. There she was again – always thinking of the other person, people, never considering herself. So I think that a walk round the village and it’s surrounds is the best homage I could pay to her memory.
Here is Linda’s Marcolèsian walk crafted with great love and an aching heart. There are no pictures of our house and there is no commentary – you can make it up yourself as she would have, rather let’s just stroll the place that she would have seen when she graced Marcolès with her extraordinarily unassuming presence.
PS – because there is always a PS and Linda would be disappinted if I omitted it …. the title is from a song. A song that was written by Rodgers and Hammerstein for their œuvre ‘Carousel’. But the relevance is that Gerry and The Pacemakers recorded ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ in the early sixties. Gerry and his P’s were from Liverpool, the song became the anthem of Liverpool through thick and thin – it is sung jubilantly at football matches and desperately in times of strife. HB² (my husband) is Scouse (from Liverpool) and Linda, a woman who researched and upturned every fact that she could about just about anything, was delighted that he came from the land of the Merseybeat. She got to know what he does for a living through our friendship and her own independent research and was questioning of articles she found in the press as a result. That was the way she was. Intelligent and inquiring, she instinctively researched and in fact held many theories that my husband adheres to. She would tell you she was not particularly bright. I would argue she was among the most brilliant stars that have graced my galaxy. And that of my fêted husband. And, here’s the thing, he agrees. This song, written to illustrate the moment of moving on from this earth to another place seems highly appropriate. Walk on, Linda, walk on, with hope in your heart – I know I will never walk alone because you were, and are my friend, my true true friend.
The featured image for this post, was her favourite of all I ever posted about this place that would have adored her and I wish she was here to make it so.
You’ll Never Walk Alone
When you walk through a storm Hold your head up high And don’t be afraid of the dark
At the end of the storm Is a golden sky And the sweet silver song of a lark
Walk on through the wind Walk on through the rain Though your dreams be tossed and blown
Walk on walk on with hope in your heart And you’ll never walk alone
You’ll never walk alone
Walk on walk on with hope in your heart And you’ll never walk alone
Of all the surprises blithely thrown in my path in le Cantal, one of the most profound is le Monastère Orthodoxe Znaménié. The mountains and plateau Cézallier are France at her deepest and most hidden. These days entirely agricultural, lightly peppered with tiny villages and the odd slumbering ghost town clinging vainly to a long forgotten once-upon-a-past prosperity, the hills sweep rather than peak up to around 1400 metres (around 4,600 feet). Not the highest and not the alpiest, pretty, school-child picturey of mountains, they are nevertheless uncompromising and can quickly turn from humble to harsh. Open to the elements, the snows stick around many a year into May. Fog and mist swirl and swathe often and disorientate rapidly. And it boasts some of the stormiest and most petulant weather in Western Europe with a positively rude statistic for lightning. It takes a particular sort of personality to thrive in the elements that are randomly chucked about here.
Into this landscape in 1988 wandered a murmur of Nuns desperately seeking solitude and a place that nurtured their meditational, peaceful lifestyle. They set about converting a barn into a Monastery. Yes, I too would say convent but they insist it is a Monastery and I have never knowingly tangled with a Nun and shan’t change that habit now. Monastery then. They spent 6 years converting the barn into their vision. With their own hands and with the help of benificent neighbours. Most of the work, I am assured by the locals was done by the nuns and to be frank it takes my breath away. They based their vision on the Monasteries on Mount Athos in Greece. I have seen those gleaming immense edifices from a bobbing boat on an azure sea. I am a woman and am not allowed to set foot on the Athos Peninsular. Neither, despite their pious status, would these nuns. Men who are not of the specific cloth worn by the Russian or Greek Orthodox Churches have to request a formal invitation and it typically takes many years presumably in the vague hope that the aforementioned non-sacred men will get bored and go about their secular business and not further bother the mysterious monkdoms. I have been fascinated and a little obsessed with the notion of what actually goes on there for years. Ever since I visited the trident shaped headlands on my big fat Greek holidays several years ago. As a result my delight at finding a tiny replica on my doorstep was practically fizz-banging like my own private lightning storm. What I learned about these women (whom I literally stumbled upon one fine Spring day about two years ago) was that they do everything that they can, themselves. That they ask for the most minimal of help. That they grow most of what they eat themselves which is by no means easy at 1200 metres altitude, that they keep bees and that they sell small amounts of bee products, jams and other produce to raise the necessary cash to pay for the things they absolutely can’t do themselves. A fellow from whom we considered buying a house, widowed and wanting to move away from the place he had shared with his true love, told me that the dentist in the local town treats the nuns free of charge and that the state of their teeth is quite deplorable. They don’t run to colgate and dental floss on their tiny budget. Solitary they are. Solitary and selfish to the extent that they have dropped out of society in order to spend their days in contemplation, meditation and prayer. But harmless. Not effecting anyone bady. If you would like to visit, you can on certain days. Free of charge.
Here in Grenoble there is a problem with homelessness (les sans abris). It is a problem replicated across France and beyond, certainly to my own country of birth. It is a cause close to my heart. I have been within the most uncomfortably close sight of my own prospective homelessness with three small children and a baby in my life. I believe it is a fundemental human right to know where you are going to lay your head at night and that the place should not be under a cardboard quilt and the cold blanket of starlight. In this city we have an excellent charitable network that tries to ensure the right help is delivered to the people who need it. I have put my name on the list to volunteer to help but so far I have not been needed. There are many willing supporters who go out with food, blankets, clothing and a compassionate ear. The aim is to get all those suffering on the streets into accommodation. We have an extremely liberal mayor. It is high on his agenda.
Enter the dragon. The dragon in this case has foul breath and speaks with forked tongue. Lesfaux abris, I have taken to calling them. The network of drop-outs (often not French but rather from other countries in Europe) who congregate, doss around and beg. You can recognise them from the signature can of beer and dogs and glossy mobile phone. Because dogs make people more willing to give money. The dogs are passed around one motley hive to another, the beers are clutched proprietorially and not shared with anyone. This causes my highly charged social conscience and, I would argue, innate sence of decency to short-circuit. I want to help everyone. I want everyone to have a home. But these people do. They are, of course squatters. Twenty year old me would have said ‘so what?’ but fifty-something year old me is peturbed. You see, unlike the nuns high up in the unforgiving landscape of Cantal, unlike the genuine fallen on hard times not of their own making homeless, these people have chosen to drop out and scavenge. And it urks me greatly. I see people abused when they walk past and refuse to put money in the cups thrust unrelentingly and indeed agressively in their faces. I see people dropping money to avoid being threatened. I see the dogs that are the bait for their hook left to lie alone on traffic islands in the hope that someone will take pity and give money to feed them. Puppies included.
Recently, I staggered onto the tram laden with heavy shopping from the supermarket. Behind me teetered a lady of extremely advanced years. I would suggest certainly north of her mid 80s and possibly more. Wearing a shabby tailored coat that she had visibly worn these past many decades, carrying a once decent now decaying vinyl handbag and with her shoes reminiscent of those my mother wore when I was a child long ago and far away, her hair neatly pinned and a slick of vivid geranium lipstick setting off her freshly powdered cheeks, she was clearly chary of walking past the vast Mastive held on a chain by a youngish woman wearing the uniform of her tribe. A tribe that perports to be anachistic and yet is recognisable by it’s hermogenous clothing. The outcasts are infact their own incasts. With her, a man brandishing his upmarket handheld device. It was the arrogance and smugness that made me want to smack them both in the teeth. The old lady, complete with stick I should add, was ignored. They did not offer to give up the seat that the young woman was fatly occupying, they did not move out of the way, they did not offer to help her to an empty seat which meant traversing the impressively muscular dog who I am sure was beautifully mannered but was overwhelming in his bulk and would surely present an alarming prospect to a tiny trim person slowly desiccating with age. She was stoic. Uncomplaining. As are, I have noticed all the elderly who are passively bullied by those that prefer not to offer a seat to one whose need is greater. I found her a seat and she thanked me in a whisper. I did not need thanks. It was a simple act of decency.
Later that same day, I met the same disparate group on a different tram. I pondered why a young woman should need such a large dog. Indeed when one is living the simple life in a city why one would want to be encumbered by a canine at all. The answer did not need to blow in the wind, the answer was screaming in my ears. She peddles stuff, nasty chemical mind bending stuff …. I’m beedy eyed and not, as my children will vouch from bitter experience, naïve to the goings on that they as youngsters thought their generation had copyright on. Of course, we ourselves invented it all a generation before, it having been invented by our parents generation, and so on ad tedium backwards.
And this is my conundrum. I am all for people living as they choose to. I am no preacher but I do exhort freedom as a fundemental of human rights and choice must surely be at the root of that tree. I’m a bit of a hermit, I may well be on the strange end of odd in many ways, but I am innocuous. I like to help where I can but if I want to opt out completely then I will do so and not get in anyone’s way. The Nuns high up in the Cézallier are all but self-sufficient and what little money they need they earn by their own toil.The real homeless, in this city, not in all as I am painfully mindful, are helped. Their stories will penetrate all but the most frigid of hearts. Many are addicts. Addiction is not and never should be considered a crime. Helping people into that dark place IS and always should be.
PS: The quote is of course Greta Garbo. She said it in ‘Grand Hotel’ and the line came to define her. In fact, much later, she would protest that she had never said it outside of the movie and that what she had actually said was ‘I want to be let alone’ … splitting hairs one might observe but I can sympathise with the irritation at being eternally defined by one tiny soundbite. And I can empathise with the need to be alone, the desire for me-time and the idea of being a recluse. Nonetheless, I will not be taking Holy Orders in pursuit of that particular happiness.
Here is Greta as your bonus. The young and extraordinarily talented woman providing the soundtrack to the montage fell prey to addiction ….
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.
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 ….
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?
The Bean is a well travelled dog. Her mileage by road and air (and a little by rail) is boggling for such a small canine. To facilitate her cross-border maraudings she has to abide by rules and she holds a European Pet Passport which logs her necessary vaccinations and rabies shots and, if she wants to visit the country of her birth, it registers the worming tablet demanded by the British to be administered not less than 24 hours and not more than 120 before travel by a certified veterinarian. To partake of this delight, we toddle chez le veterinaire in our nearest town and the vet jokes with her that it is just a little French sweetie (she is bored with the joke, has been since the first time when she discovered the depth of the lie) and with me that it is ironic that he, a Frenchman, takes money (35€) from me, an Englishwoman to allow my British dog to travel to our own country. I smile my beatific smile and nod and wonder why it is necessary at all and count my blessings that I don’t have to be wormed as well.
Yesterday, we pottered into the ‘Cabinet Veterinaire’ a little after 9 and were greeted warmly and asked to take a seat. The newly upgraded surgery is bright and cheerful with a row of radiant yellow alternating with dazzling orange plastic chairs and a vast and jubilant tub of plastic plants in the centre. I sat remembering the last time The Bean and I were in that spot in August. A frail old man, driven by his strapping hard muscled from hard work 30-something grandson struggled to carry his best friend, a sheepdog once bursting with energy now simply desiccated with age, into the surgery. They were expected and were ushered silently straight into the treatment rooms. I waited a while and then took The Beligerent Bean in for her vile pill which she spat out a few times to keep the vet on his toes, as is her custom, whilst he made his joke about the irony of it all and I attempted to be beatific but achieved instead a handsome grimace. Afterwards I stepped back into the reception to pay my bill and there was the old man his grandson standing sentinel next to him as he pulled his chequebook out to pay for the demise of his best friend. Cheque written, the lovely lady who presides cheerfully and appropriately over her domain began to explain what would happen to the dog and the old fellow shook his head and signalled his young protector to take the details. He simply couldn’t and wouldn’t take in any more. I caught his eye and said ‘I am sorry for your loss’. He crouched on his creaking haunches and caressed The Bean, told her she was beautiful and such a goooood girl in cracked gutteral Auvergnat French which takes years to tune into accurately even if you are a Parisien. He looked up, the depth of sorrow in his eyes so cavernous that I could not hope to reach the bottom and he thanked me. Thanked ME. The grace of ordinary humans never ceases to astound me. Never.
Just ahead of us yesterday was an old lady. Immaculately turned out in her best coat and shoes, shoes that have seen service for as many decades as I have taken breath, I would vouch, mended, remended, polished and serviceable, a scarf draped at the neck she was as pale as moonlight in midwinter. She had arrived in a taxi driven by a young woman of similar age to the grandson in summer. In the interests of lightening this sombre piece I will tell you that our local taxi firm is magnificently named ‘Taxi Willy’ which obviously makes a girl born in England quiver like an ill-set jelly as I stifle my inevitable sniggers. The driver was deferential and warm as she looked after her passenger who was as stiff as a board not in hostility but in the way of someone holding herself together because she must. I surmise that this young woman drives the lady often. Taxis (Willy’s taxis) are the only means of transport for a woman widowed who doesn’t drive and lives probably some miles from town. It’s the nature of rural life when bus services cease to operate because we all have at least one car. All of us that matter. It’s the nature of being left behind in the place that you have always lived as it sheds it’s young to the cities and quietly erodes around you. She was nestling her cat when they went in to see the vet. When they came out some 10 minutes later there was no cat. The vet, a lady explained to the woman the different options for cremation (the French word is ‘Incineration’ which to English speaking ears is jarring and rather unfeeling) …. she listened, she acknowledged, she fumbled in her handbag for her purse and the driver gently helped her find the money to pay. She walked to the taxi and she climbed stiffly into the backseat and as they drove away I was struck by the enormity of her holding herself together. I imagined the young woman seeing her into her silent home. Making sure she was comfortable, offering to drop in and see her later. And I imagined her, coatless and tiny walking to her chair as the taxi drove away, allowing herself to shed the tears that no man nor woman outside of her house must ever see. And I thought of us all preparing for the holidays, the hubub of excitement, the coiled spring of anticipation of the gluttonous festivities, the plethora of brilliant sparkling lights lifting our spirits high, the overspending and the overeating and the overdrinking and the overmerrying. And I thought how dreadfully sad it is to be on your own with your companion about to be incinerated and your life spent. And I thought of the dignity of the old man, the ramrod buttoned up stoicism of the old woman and the kindness paid back by the muscular vital grandson and the paid taxi driver. Nothing will make up for losing those best friends, I can hope that new best friends arrive to comfort them but life trickles away and it is so easy in this time of overindulgence to forget. So I care to remember.
And my picture, offered in response to the Photo Challenge titled ‘Anticipation’ is The Greedy Bean anticipating cheese when we were picnicing on a hike last winter. Pulling tongues, she assumes is cute and she always stands on her hind legs when anticipating these delectable morsels prompting me to almost title this piece ‘Stand Up, stand Up for Cheeses’ as a nod to the Sally Army and their wonderful work at this time of the year. Her anticipation, by the way, is always gratified just as the shadow of a sheepdog and the cherished cat were. She, like they, is a good best friend. You can indulge in all the other dandy entries to the gallery here.
PS: Two Brains remarked after yesterday’s poignant encounter that it is so easy to be a little scornful and supercillious of people’s relationship to their animals but that the sad vignette finely illustrates the enormous importance that our domestic pets have in the lives of others and of us. Later, wading through an enormous 5-course lunch including wine and coffee for the princely sum of 13€ each, the door of the Auberge burst open with the force of a hurricane but accompanied by no bitter wind and the light seemed to briefly dim as a leviathan with shaven head, sporting khaki t-shirt to expose his magnificent tatoo-adorned muscular arms and hunting trousers with a pair of positively combatitive laced boots and hefty leather and chrome belt to stash his beefing blades strode in and over to his fragrant, coiffed and chicly attired wife waiting decorously for him. In the arms of this middle-aged goliath snuggled the tiniest Yorkshire Terrier, born with such tenderness and passed to his spouse with a care normally reserved for a scrunched up new-born and the identical kiss to the teeny canine forehead bestowed before he let his precious bundle go. Comic and touching all in one we found it hard not to stare like a pair of uncouth Pinnochios.
And because it’s Christmas and the title has no relevance whatsoever, being, as it is, stolen from Frank N Furter in Richard O’Brien’s now legendary ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show’ as he makes his raucous entrance to the unfettered alarm of the stranded Brad and Janet, here is Tim Curry to play us out as I wish you the Happiest Holidays, le plus bon fête de Noël or the Merriest Christmas depending on where in the world you are. ‘I see you shiver with antici…..pation!’
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.
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.
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.
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.