I was fortunate to have two Grannies when I was small. In fact I had two until I was nearly 16 but unhappily one succumbed to dementia and was in a nursing home for nearly 8 years before her life extinguished. So, at the time, half of mine was spent with her vibrant, outspoken and faintly outrageous personality, full of bell-like tinkling laughter chiming through her house replete with rather exotic and eminently touchable artifacts and half with a shrinking, fading somewhat pathetic reminder of whom she had been. I remember being vaguely scared of her when we went to visit as she evaporated slowly away. She was withered and bent and painfully thin with skin parched and almost transparent through which the vessels carrying her aged blood were defiantly visible. Dessiccating. She had the faint odour of care home and often didn’t utter a sound except the thinnest of hints of breath in and out. When she did speak she had a habit of rambling in guttural spitty Arabic having lived in Egypt in the 1920s and 30s during the up-market tourist boom of that era when my grandpapa was chief accountant for Thomas Cook. Sadly it was a relief to be sent outside to play with the nursing home dog – an unfeasibly large pyreneen mountain dog called Uggles who resembled Nana in Peter Pan and was similarly hard-wired to nurse-maiding children. When she died at the age of almost 92 there were few left to mourn her so her funeral was tiny – eight of us including my cousins, my elder brother and I. So feeble were our collective voices that the crematorium put a cassette tape of the Kings College Choir singing our chosen hymns to bolster us up. Outside it was cold and damp and I realised my father was crying. I realised my father was a son. I realised my father was a feeling, emotional creature just like me. It was a seminal moment.
As I’ve grown older I miss her even though I barely had opportunity to acquaint with her and I wish I’d had the moment to know her better. I’m told I’m like her. I take it as the greatest compliment – she lost an arm in the First World War when nursing in France. Gangrene. Not carelessness, just caring for others in greater need. When we were small children she used to swing one armed into a string hammock and then pull us all in with her, one at a time and read us stories under the lilac trees. She also had a wonderful and positively enormous cat called Kim who resembled an overstuffed fur cushion. She was, therefore Granny Kim.
This lady sitting in les Jardins de Luxembourg hijacks me, reverses time and delivers me to a presentday now past and long forgotten yet seamlessly evoked. A time I wish I had noticed when the then was now. She knows nothing of her curious power of course as she casually soaks in the sunshine. Behind her the children play, the lovers drift hand in hand, friends gossip on benches. Every one of us growing older as time relentlessly moves us forward. Carpe diem.
An occasionally regular series charting a seemingly endless search for the perfect maison familiale. You can catch up on previous installments by typing Vendre dit into the search box if you are so inclined.
I have to take a deep breath and cast my musty mind back more than three years for this part three. And there are, appropriately three parts as it turns out.
The Mairie, Champs sur Tarentaine-Marchal
It was the beginning of Winter and we had flown from London for a fleeting visit to this place that had welded itself to our collective heart. We had much to do. We were to be interviewed by the Mayor of Champs sur Tarentaine to see if he would agree to marry us. He did. So we then booked lunch at the very nice restaurant just outside the village. It was a lovely lunch, followed by an in depth discussion of the arrangements for our Wedding Feast. To take place in the garden (under the pretty, rustic awnings if it was too cool or too sunny) and to consist of a wonderful array of food (mostly what Madame dictated since our English notions of Wedding Fayre where frightfully outré) with delicious wines aplenty and beautifully decorated tables. We sat and chatted with our very good friends and discussed the invitations which she insisted on designing for us and he explained the etiquette of the vin d’honneur mariage at the Mairie immediately following the ceremony. All was glowing rosily in our world. And fired up with our joie de vivre and the sure knowledge that we were entirely unassailable in our love-bubble we rang an immobilier in Aurillac and asked if we might see a house he had on his books. He was called Eric.
We arrived at Eric’s office and Eric was no-where to be seen. We took our seats and I glanced at my mobile. A hysterical note from a daughter indicated that I needed to send her money. I did this instantly and seemlessly on my iPhone and congratulated myself on my epic grasp of modern technology. Whilst cursing the downside of raising children on ones own which is that when they are in need there is only one point on their compass. We waited some more and eventually Eric surfaced. During the wait, his glossy assistant had gleaned that we wanted somewhere with a decent patch of land but that it would be a maison secondaire so needed to be reasonably practical until we collectively retired. She had punched this information emphatically into her computer and not for the first time in my life, I marvelled at how it can possibly be that some women are able to maintain a perfect manicure and type whilst I need never bother with polish unless chipped and distressed become nail haute couture. We christened Eric, Eric the Fish on account of the Monty Python sketch in which Michael Palin wants to buy a licence for his pet fish, Eric and the shop-keeper is also called Eric. He’s an halibut. Eric lives with a dog called Eric and a cat called Eric. And so it goes on. Anyway Eric the Fish bid us follow him out of town to view the house.
Now it should be noted that our friend Eric (not Eric the Fish) is a motor cycle cop. In fact he is known as Eric Motard. That means Eric the bike-cop. Eric had assessed the house we were going to see with a single sentence – ‘I know that place … I often have a speed trap almost outside it’. Eric is a hero. Later, at our wedding all my daughter’s will fall in love with him and announce he is a French Bruce Willis. Eric keeps tropical fish.
We sped out of town behind Eric the Fish. Two Brains was tangibly agitated behind the wheel, convinced that we were going to meet Eric Motard and his speed gun at any moment. Imagine the embarrassment. Our Gendarme friend Philippe (you may recall that all our friends are called Philippe. Except Eric) had the ultimate embarassment when he was stopped for speeding in his own village. Twice. At the time he was the station sergeant. On a particularly nasty bend we spied the house and beyond it a layby into which Eric the Fish shimmy-ed adroitly somehow avoiding a speeding truck bearing down the road in the other direction. We creeped and peeped, took a deep breath and our lives in our hands and turned across the road to a white-faced halt next to the immobilier. He waved nonchalantly at the house and said there is a garage underneath but it would be madness to park in it given that this is a route nationale and known for it’s accidents. He didn’t seem to think this fact might in any way put us off. We walked down the road, backs glued to the bank and staring death in the face. We dutifully entered the house which was clearly a maison secondaire for a family with teenaged or young adult children who took advantage of the skiing just up the road at le Lioran. The basement garage was full of snow boards and skis and it was all very sportif. The house itself was an interesting patchwork of purples, puces, violent ocres and magentas interspersed with the occasional and presumably strategic accent piece in lime green or scarlet. Not to my personal taste but châcun a son gout. It has to be said that the views out over the valley were beyond magnificent notwithstanding the road between house and view. But we explained to Eric le poisson that really we couldn’t live on such a fast highway, even if it was not our fixed abode. That we have five young adult children and the idea of letting them stay, go into town for a night out and negotiate the road in high spirits was unbearable and that as nice as the elevated garden was you would need to have your mountain goat Boy Scout or Girl Guide badge to get up and down those steps in the dark. He suggested we follow him back to his office to discuss. We should have sneaked off into the yonder the other way but being polite and English we did as bidden.
He said he had two houses that were just the ticket. No pictures of either because they were new on the market but we would be foolish to let the opportunity slip. We went and had lunch in the town. Aurillac is the prefecture or capitol of Cantal and very lovely …. small with only 28,000 population but beautifully formed and very artsy with strong bias to music and in particular, jazz . We chose a restaurant quite badly and managed to attract an extraordinarily surly waitress who told us the menu du jour was finished and then proceeded to serve it up to several tables who came in after us but what she did deign to serve us was very nice if twice the price. It happens.
Back at Chez le Fish promptly at 2:15 we set off and I could not begin to tell you where we went. It seemed to take an age but eventually we arrived in a tiny hamlet. We entered a small, rather dark house midst an explanation that it came with about a hectare of land on which the owner kept a couple of goats a cow and some poultry. And possibly a horse and donkey. How you can have any misunderstanding over the latter, I silently pondered as we walked straight into the main piece to be greeted nervously by a stooped very elderly man standing pointedly poking a weak and clearly freshly laid fire. ‘I did as you said’ he said to The Fish and to us ‘The fire makes the house much nicer. That’s what he told me’. The Fish (who it should be noted looked rather uncomfortable and had some sort of coughing siezure as this nugget was being imparted) had clearly told him that if he lit the fire all of a sudden the house would take on fresh and beguiling personality and we would be possessed of a passion to buy it. I’m surprised he hadn’t told the poor soul to bake a fresh loaf and grind some coffee beans as well. It was a sorry little place. Jaded and neglected like it’s sweet old owner. He told me he was a widower. His wife had died a little while ago and he had continued as best he could (I don’t know how old he was but I would guess either side of eighty) but now all he wanted to do was move to Toulouse where his son and daughter were. They were too busy to come and see him but if he could sell, he could move near them and then he would be happy. I walked quietly round the house and said his wife had pretty things. She did. Very few but they were pretty. He said he missed her still but it was time to move because he now struggled to cope and it was a long way for his daughter and son to come and see him. And they were busy. He told me this over and over as though by referencing them enough times he might magic them up. If we’d had the money we would have bought the house then and there and driven him to Toulouse and found him a place where he could be warm and cosy. Near to other elderly people and people that might deign to talk to him. I was not convinced his daughter and son would have time to spend time with him even if he was next door but maybe I surmise unjustly. I felt hollow when we left because I knew we could not and would not buy it and I wished I hadn’t put him to the trouble of lighting his fire fruitlessly. As I’m very afraid it will always be.
The Fish then escorted us to his other gem. The most bizarre house I had ever been inside though now I know it is not at all out of the ordinary. Being a beady eyed bird, I spotted instantly that this was a décès (deceased estate) the clue being in the assertively placed post-it notes in sundry lurid colours on all the furniture and fittings presumably being code for the various beneficiary’s spoils. The house was positively cavernous. It was reached by a path that a toddler could traverse in two steps. In other words it fronted directly onto the road – it was in a small and rather disconcertingly quiet village. It had a sort of brooding silence. We imagined that the garden which was about an acre must all be to the rear. It felt rather Kafkaesque inside. Arrow straight corridors with several doors either side all opening onto seemingly identical rooms. Square, wallpapered by a latterday lunatic and gloomy. Obscurely it had two kitchens one on either side of the corridor. Both completely kitted out identically to include twin past-their-sell-by and quite possibly extremely dangerous old cooker, huge chipped enamel sinks with rusting taps, ancient cupboards (not lovely antique cupboards you understand, more hoary unsalvagable cupboards) bow fronted vintage refrigerators each big enough to store a body and formica topped metal table and chairs. This mysterious arrangement was not explained and we were too polite to ask … We were not, however, too polite to ask to see the garden. ‘Certainly’ said The Fish. ‘Hop in your car and follow me’. ‘No. The garden. We just wanted to see the garden.’ ‘Yes – it’s about a kilometre down the road.’ This was our first experience of a phenomena which is commonplace in France … terrain non attenant where you have land but it doesn’t join your house. Sometimes it’s in several different locations but none of them ajoin, let alone surround, your house. I had visions of lovely leisurely lunches on a long table under the trees and wondered at the sheer logistics of planning such a meal in your two kitchens. In fairness, the reception rooms though sombre would wake up and smile with some care and there was a sweet little parlour that would make a cosy office and there was running water though it was unclear whether hot water was a consideration. But no cellar which is odd in such a once grandiose place. And to take coffee in the garden would require a thermos flask and to take a glass of wine would require a cool-bag. Or alternatively a footman in full livery, obviously, to push his trolley down the road and convince the invisible neighbours that the English really are all mad dogs.
PS: When we returned to the restaurant that was catering for our wedding party less than a month before our big day Madame had never seen us before in her life and had no record nor recollection of taking the booking AND unfortunately was now catering for a bit of a do – another do taking the entire restaurant and garden and couldn’t possibly fit us in. That she also lost the Mayor’s dinner booking for himself and several other frightfully important local dignitaries did nothing to salve the sore. But that is another story ….
By the way, the title is Aramis to Athos and d’Artagnan in Dumas’ ‘The Three Musketeers’ because this is a story of three and I have always rather agreed with him.
And another thing: When I am writing stories of houses for sale I think it a matter of decency not to feature photos of the actual places. Therefore, the pictures illustrating each story are just that – illustrative. All taken by me, of course. However, as it happens one of the buildings featured in Aurillac is for sale … it’s an ancient presbeterie and has a beautiful courtyard garden probably best suited to conversion as flats. In case you were interested in a bit of light property development in le Cantal ….
The strapline to this blog is ‘a rootless writer takes root’. I have moved house a lot in my adult life, it is true. 25 times in 28 years. Not any sort of plan just circumstance conspiring. Another day. The story will reveal itself when it is ready. That’s how it works – no planning just a perculation that results in a story being ready for the telling.
And this story is prêt à porter … instantly packaged and ready to take off the shelf. In our search for our forever house, we have looked at many. And there are almost as many stories. But this one. This one refuses to wait.
The house, a Manor built in the early 19th century with a bit over a half hectare of land (not really enough for us but the house looked so pretty that we were enticed) is not far from here and enjoys the most stunning views across to the Monts du Cantal and the Massif de Sancy. It has a rudely large barn and a lovely orangery. It also has a pigonniere. Pigonniere (dove houses) are always described as ‘jolie’ here and I have no idea why. The house belongs to an elderly man (now in his 90s) and his daughter who lives abroad. This is normal under French law. When his wife died he will have inherited 2/3 and his daughter 1/3. If there were 2 children the house would be divided into 4, 3 into 5, 4 into 6 and so on – 2 parts for the surviving spouse and the children get 1 part each. It is a simple equation and in theory protects the living parent for the rest of their days ensuring they always have a home. This particular old fellow is in nursing care (we know not, and it is irrelevant, where) and the daughter wants to sell. All reasonable. And the house is lovely. Very, very tired but lovely. A huge main room, a panelled dining room and the oddest kitchen with a vaulted, but quite low, ceiling and no windows giving the air of cooking in a submarine. Despite finding various stuffed birds and animals stashed in a walk-in cupboard the size of a small bedroom, I was already planning the alterations to make it our home. Upstairs many bedrooms – small, as is the norm in these kinds of houses, and a variety of particularly eccentric bathrooms. This is France. Taking the many littles and turning them into fewer biggers and a bit of judicious plumbing – hey presto bongo – a very acceptable upstairs. Up again to a cavenous attic – big enough to accommodate a small commune. There lay a dead Coal Tit, its small body swollen as a precursor to dessiccation, wings outstretched and its tiny head held proudly stiff as though stoically resisting the inevitable. I have a life-long fear of dead birds – the result of Jane, our au pair telling me there was something magical waiting for me if I walked the length of a hosepipe which stretched from the drawing room windows round the entire house to the kitchen window, at the age of 4. I was always inquisitive and gullible. Still am. Anyhow, the something magical was actually a dead blackbird, his startled eye shining accusingly at me and his beak so yellow that I found it difficult to eat an egg yolk for several weeks to come lest I find it crunchily lurking there. But I did not let this poor departed bird put me off. We were really rather warm to the house.
We remained warm as we descended to the cellar through a tiny door, down treachorous steps to find what appeared to be The Bismarck skulking there. Closer examination revealed this rusted monster to be a boiler. How on earth they got it down there I do not know. The cellars are large, I grant you but the access would challenge a Hobbit. I can only deduce that it was a case of building the boat in the basement but it is clear that it will be far more difficult to remove. As one surely must. I should tell you that the cobwebs in this house are lustrous. The Bismarck has not sailed for some time.
Outside I wondered idly why the lawns had been ploughed to provide not one but 4 large potagers (vegetable plots) growing all manner of good things but when we walked into the palatial barn, the triple- decker hutches housing high rise bunnies began to give a clue. And the three sheep in their little field eyeing us with a mixture of fascination and fear. And the back yard with its pretty old stone dove-cot and its large population of hens, turkeys, ducks and guinea foul plus plentiful pretty, and no doubt, tasty pigeons. The wall of freezers gave another clue. A clue to a small-holding that seemed to be at odds with the lovely fountain, stone sculptures and other accoutrements of manorial life. It was like walking into a French version of ‘The Good Life’* – Tom and Barbara having annexed Margo and Jerry when their backs were turned. As we walked back towards the orangery, I noticed a car draw in and park next to the gate house (part of the purchase). A woman snuck out and dove deftly into the door of the cottage. This acted as a cue for the agent to casually tell us that the dependance was inhabited. We looked in the orangery and I gleefully imagined not just working in there but also the fact that my sculling boat would rack easily in such a large space. In passing, I asked the Two Brained one what the agent had said … I thought I had misheard. My French improves but his is far better than me after nearly 35 years living here part and full time. I hadn’t. The gate house is inhabited. And on further questioning, not by transient tennants.
The (I must say at this point, very nice and very professional) immobiier asked if we wanted to see the gate house. He couched his question with the clear intent of assuring us that we didn’t. We did. It’s a whole house not a bike shed and represents a rather significant part of the deal. We had naively imagined that we could produce a passive income from this little house as a periodic rental either for holidays or for locals, the rental market being quite buoyant in our area. And certainly that when family and friends came to stay that it would provide independent living quarters which can be a blessing for all concerned. We asked him who the people were. And he told us (rather too quickly and smoothly) that they were the retainers for the old man. Living free of charge in return for looking after the house and grounds. For the past 40 years. We entered their little home and everything changed. This little huddle of humanity – an elderly couple, their daughter and her child were terrified. They were silently pleading with us not just to like the house but mostly to like them. I have seldom felt so helpless – all of a sudden I am faced with a family whose future could depend on my kindness because I have the wherewithal to buy this place. They were clearly upset that their dogs were letting the side down by barking. I made a fuss of the animals and told them not to worry. That I love dogs. The Bean was barking from the car which reassured them that I did not speak with a forked tongue but rather that I really do love canines. Even if I utter with a curious foreign accent and knit my words together clumsily. I dutifully looked around this humble, humble place – a poky main room, a tiny snug, a bathroom with a leaking roof and upstairs three squished bedrooms, each conjoined. All tidied and polished for me to see. The old man showed me a mirror he had stuck to the wall in the bathroom to improve it – one of those frameless affairs with double sided tape on their back. It was oval. The old lady took pains to tell me that they look after the house very well. There is no heating in the house. Just a wood stove. It is simple to the point of being primitive and it is clear that they support themselves by selling a rabbit or a chicken here, some leeks and a pumpkin there. All under the wire – we had noted that the sheep were not ear-tagged as is compulsary in all EU countries, not just in France. But it was the fear in their eyes. The burning desire to make a good impression on us. Us? Who the hell are we? Unwitting people who might take their destiny in our hands. They have the knowledge that the house sale will almost certainly mean the end of their everything. Tick tock goes the clock. The agent was happy to tell us that we could get rid of them with six months notice. I thanked them for being so kind as to let me see their home. Their home. I told them it was lovely, I made more fuss of the dogs and I walked away barely able to see let alone speak. But speak we did. Briefly to the agent. And we left. Neither of us spoke, though, much on the way home. Neither of us spoke much over lunch, or supper. Later we went to bed and it turned out neither of us slept much either, if at all.
We turned over and over and over again with possibilities to make it work. Could we let them stay and let them have a bit of the land to keep producing an income? Not really – the land is not enough for us to do what we want (we being in the lofty position of being able to choose to do something we want to do) let alone sustaining a small family as well with no other income. And they would need all of it to provide a living. That is clearly demonstrated now. Could we find them somewhere else to live? Well probably, but it would be a flat in the town and they would have no income and they have been used to the life of small-holders. And where would we put our sheep – theirs are filling the little field – three is as many as that little patch would take. Could we keep them on as our retainers? Hardly – we are really not people who see ourselves as feudal lairds even assuming we could sustain them as well as ourselves on retirement income which in the cold light of day, we can’t. My brain became tireder and tireder as it tried to work a solution. I felt about as useful as the little blown body of the Tit in the attic. Simultaneously the might of the combined brains of my husband were doing the same and getting just as far. Between us we managed the square root of nothing at all. And all the while I kept seeing their frightened faces. I can still see them. Beyond anxiety. Backs against the wall, desperate in their naivety to please the potential buyer because surely then the status quo will be retained.
We will not be buying the house but someone will. Someone who will, in all likelyhood, exercise the right to kick them out. And the old man who started this whole sad story with his good intentions will wither away none the wiser. Forty years ago did he think of the possibiity that he would be an addled old man dependent on care that can’t be found in the idyll that he created as his maison secondaire? Of course not. It seemed like a really good idea to allow a young man and his wife to come and take care of everything in return for a house. Forty years later, he exists somewhere, tended to by nurses, never imagining that the pair that kept things tickety-boo in his Cantal retreat are facing hell at the end of their lives. Samuel Johnson is often misquoted as saying the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Misquote or not, in this case it fits. Horribly it fits.
On the whole I would rather have lived the life I have lived, as disrupted as it has been, than the life they lived in their innocent content, assuming it was forever whilst all the while the clock was tick, tick, ticking away to the inevitable moment when the bomb goes off and in their twilight, they are evicted because they have no human rights at all. I may have been rootless but at least I have had some control over where I floated. These people are about to have their roots ripped out of the ground and they have no more defence than a dandelion in a border of roses.
PS: The title is a shameless steal from Somerset Maugham and is chosen simply as a question of the words fitting my text rather than any similarity to the context of his great novel.
*For non-British readers, ‘The Good Life’ was called ‘Good Neighbors’ in the USA.
As previously noted, we drive a lot, little dog and I a motley pair and better still a trio completed by the husband with two brains. One day not so long ago we set off for Grenoble at around 5 a.m. We go to Grenoble reasonably frequently since HB2 has associations with IRAM (Institut de Radioastronomie Milliemetrique) and indeed worked there for 9 years throughout the 1980s. He had a house in the Belledonne mountains until recently and still has a bank account at Caisse D’Epargne in the village of Uriage les Bains. That we had to go TO the bank to reset his PIN will tell you that this particular bank is a teeny bit perochial – this is a 5-6 hour drive and we can’t use the nearer branches in Cantal because Caisse d’Epargne is entirely localised. Hey ho.
Chateau d’Uriage in Uriage les Bains
We made it in time for His Brainship to get whatever it was sorted and for The Bean and I to have a stagger up to the chateau (now in flats which I rather covert the idea of living in) and back down again.
Back to the University campus for lunch and a quick meeting with the glorious and waspishly effete Philippe (him) and a speedy spin around Castorama in search of another garden chair (The Bean and me). In case you are concerned, they didn’t have the right chair in the right colour … silly me – its almost time for Christmas, why would a shop have garden furniture in Summer!
Choices, choices – 3 p.m on a sunny Tuesday what should we do next. We could walk in the mountains … appealing. We could go shopping … I can always talk myself out of that one. Or we can go to Vienne. The Brains have been before and I have wanted to go here ever since I drove through it the very first time I came down to Grenoble on my own and decided, with no time constraints to go entirely non peage. That Leonard Cohen played in the Roman theatre in 2009 is a further lure. I love him. I wasn’t there but I wish I had been. He used to be accused of writing music to slit your wrists by when I was at school and proud of the fact that my dad looked like him according to the very beautiful Sarah Chant. I was not very beautiful so having a father who resembled an icon was a way of attaining that popular girl status we all craved if only to protect ourselves from the less lovely bullies who would make your life miserable at the drop of your school beret. I still bathe in his exquisite lyrics and though he has never really been able to sing and I am told his voice such as it was is fading, I would still have loved to sit and listen and marvel at the agility of the true poet.
L’ancien Theatre in Vienne
Of course Vienne won. You know that. And we arrived in the late afternoon of a particularly warm day, parked and strolled. This place is lovely. The second largest city in Isere (the largest is Grenoble) which in turn sits in Rhone Alpes. The Rhone strolls leisurely through it. Large and languid it needs make no extraneous effort to impress. It just is. The town was first settled by the Romans and wears those remains well. Here the semi circular Ancien Theatre, there the Temple d’Auguste et de Livie, the ruins of the medieval castle on the hill that was built on Roman footings, the pyramid (otherwise known as le Plan de l’Aiguille) which rests on a four arched portico this is a place that knows what it is.
Cathedral de St Maurice
Le Temple de’Augustus et de Livia
Mediaval tower with extensions
L’Hotel de Ville
Spanning the river Rhone
L’Eglise St Pierre
It shimmys you through its history easily and the town moves around its monuments fluidly – al fresco bars and cafes abound and clearly it is thriving. A huge new tourist office is being built looking over the river on which you can take a boat the size of a small principality to cruise and dine. We made a note that we will. It is a place we will return to and explore over and over again. We whistle-stopped around it seeing the stunning cathedral of St Maurice, the elegant city hall and all the above except the needle. I noted the casual layabout roman carved blocks by the Temple with some glee … one of the things I love about Rome is the way the ancient has just been squished in with the modern over the centuries and the bits that drop off just stay where they lay. It has the beauty of an overstuffed boudoir whose owner can’t bear to part with a single thing, even if its broken.
I should note at this point that I have an overwhelming and admittedly, to the casual observer, quite possibly strange obsession with the departements and regions of France. When we first drove the long drive from Oxfordshire to Cantal late last summer, we bought a book in one of the Aires on the way called ‘Les 101 departements de France’. It is aimed at children …. probably quite young children if I’m honest but I love it. Slowly, slowly I am making sense of the geography of this huge country and slowly, slowly I am learning all the departments, their numbers (they are numbered alphabetically) and I can idly note where the cars that punctuate my drives long and short come from. And its not entirely pointless to know where they are from – for instance, there are lots and lots of Paris plates in Cantal and I know why …. if you want to learn you will have to stick with me because I am being discursive enough in this post already. But I will, I promise, write about what I have learned the historic connection between the two is, before very long at all. My pledge is that if you hold you breath, you won’t turn blue … I don’t want asphyxiated readers on my conscience so that will be spur enough to write it. Back on piste …. I live in Auvergne (in Cantal – number 15 to be precise) and to the west of me is Limousin and number 87 is Haute Vienne. Which means there must be a Vienne. And indeed there is (number 86 naturally) – I’ve been there … it’s in Poitou-Charente and its capital is the lovely Poitiers which I will always think of as Sidney. If you are as old as I you will know what I mean. But Vienne is not in Vienne. It’s in Isere. And that it was historically called Vienna makes it even more confusing. But one thing I was sure of that Viennoisserie, the wonder of French patisserie must certainly come from Vienne. I pressed my nose against several pastry shop windows … I am often to be found in this postion lured by the sweet wonderlands they always are. And I went home secure in the knowledge that I had been in the home of the croissant. Only to find that they come from Vienna. But then again … maybe it was this Vienna. Before it was Vienne. Surely. Surely the French can’t be eating Austrian pastries … can they?
I’d buy it ….
On the long drive home I told my husband a story of a trip a little while ago … stay with me now, settle and I will share it with you.
In April we travelled to Russia. For Russia you need a visa. The two venerable institutions (that which he works for and that which he was visiting) communicated, many people filled in many forms for him and we travelled to Lyon to drop our passports, pay a fee and settle back for their return in a week or so. Two Brains went back to the US a few days later (that our daughters are convinced that he is one of The Men in Black may go a way to explain how the passport was in Paris via Lyon and he still managed to board a flight from Europe and enter the US without a murmour) and I woke the following day to an ominous email telling me that something was wrong in the process and I needed to contact him urgently. Actually, my paperwork (which I had filled out myself) was perfect but unfortunately the enormous combined brains of the two venerable institutions had made a mistake with his. Frantic calls to Paris, more paperwork and eventually, after nearly two weeks, a call to tell me that the passports were ready for collection in Lyon. That I was due to travel to London on the Monday left me with no alternative but to drive down before the Consulate closed at midday on the Saturday. Which I did. And a lovely drive it was – sunrise over the volcanos of the Puy de Dome can never fail to captivate. The Bean, unimpressed by the display slept and we made Lyon by 11. I ran in and out bearing the treasured passports complete with visas and skipped back to the car to take tiny dog for a walk and grab a coffee before the journey home. The consulate is in a pretty area of what is a lovely city and one that I fully intend to explore but enough of buildings and rivers and city ambience, the point of this story is a person.
Pretty it is, but mostly closed on a Saturday morning, in this area that is mainly devoted to businesses. Vainly looking about for a likely pit-stop I nearly fell over a tiny little lady pulling a shopping trolley prettily adorned with macaroons. She was trying to catch the attention of The Bean so I stopped in politeness and truthfully complimented her cake-garnished pull-along. In my opinion there can never be too many macaroons in a life, preferably to devour but if that isn’t an option then images adorning pretty much anything are an acceptable reminder of their delight. The lady was truly like a sparrow – tiny, black eyed and spry. She coaxed and cajoled The Bean who dutifully danced on her hind legs and the lady rewarded me with the tinkling laughter of so many fairies ringing tiny bells in the tree lined square. She told me she had a dog indoors who is so old that he can only make it to the bottom of the steps twice a day to perform his necessary functions and that aged and slow as she is the dog can’t keep up at all. She asked if I was from Lyon and I told her no, English but living in Cantal. She was interested. Did my husband work there … no – America. She hoovered up every morcel of information I could give her and pointed in turn to the only cafe open on a Saturday morning in this district. She wanted to know if I had children. I told her about the girls and about the son I gained with marriage. She laughed at my eye-rolling descriptions of them and asked if they visit often. I told her they would in summer I hoped. We chatted away and she asked if I had grandchildren. Not yet I said. And then all of a sudden her face creased in the wrong way. The sad way. Her dark beaded eyes clouded and tears pricked them. I touched her arm and asked stoutly (I am English in a crisis) if I could help. She composed herself and told me that she had lost a grand-daughter. To start with I thought this must have just happened but in fact it was over 20 years ago. Aged barely 19, killed in a road accident. A fool drove his car into hers. He survived, she died. She said not a day passes that she doesn’t think of the girl, a promising ballerina so full of life then brutally stamped out. The girl was her youngest grand-daughter. She said the dancing stopped with her passing. I couldn’t leave her in her sadness so I suggested we take coffee together. We walked the square and sat in front of the cafe for maybe a half hour. I would estimate that this little bird was at least 85 and probably ten or even more years older than that. Her clothes, immaculate, her tiny frame that would fit in her own shopping trolley, her lovely lilty slightly growly voice, her directness affected me then and I will always think of her. Not as often as she thinks of her dancing grand-daughter but nonetheless I will think of her often. The grief still so raw after decades and the root of it the fact that she still walks and her grand-child is motionless. Dance me to the end of love ….
Plateau d’Artense in the Belledonne above Grenoble …. to me this is where my father walked when his spirit left his body. I can see the lively young spirit of a dancer on the path with him
PS: Familiarity breeds contempt – unfortunately 2 weeks later I got a rather official letter rather officially telling me that somewhere between Brioude and le Puy en Velay I had been doing a whopping 97 in a 90 zone – 1 penalty point, 45 euros and a note to self that nearly a year here has made me rather too blasé. To note: Here there is no 10% cushion … in fact at 90 kmh the allowable excess is 2 kmh – that’s less than 1 mile per hour at nearly 60.
We walk. The Bean and me and HB2, when he is here makes three. There are 340 marked PR (petit randonnees) across le Cantal and I have set myself the ideal of walking all of them. In keeping with the rest of France these are marked walks, mostly circular and varying in length and difficulty. The simple colour coding system tells you if it is easy (blue), longer and more difficult (yellow) or very long and varying in difficulty (green). One weekend recently we decided to drive to the far north east of the departement (a drive of about 1.5 hours) and do a nice long green walk. The duration was estimated as 4.75 hours for the 14.5 km. We packed a picnic of cheese and bread and tomatos and set off. The day was glorious – sunny, hot and with a fair scattering of the fluffiest white clouds dancing across the bluest of blue skies.
The walk was glorious too … and along the way we three became four. About 5 km into the walk having marvelled at a tiny Roman bridge, failed to find a museum founded by two young boys aged 11 and 16 in the 1990’s housed in a pain four they restored themselves, and nattering contentedly whilst watching The Bean foraging and ferreting as she does, we entered a petit hameau.
As we exited the village it could not escape our notice that a young and very boisterous German Shepherd dog, ears yet to stand upright so probably no more than 8 months old, was running along beside us. We stopped and shooed him home. We walked back up the road to encourage him but, oblivious, he continued out of the village. After a kilometre we were concerned – he was haring in and out of fields, he was very very happy, joyous in fact, but he clearly was not clear about where he lived. Let me put this in to context – this is a huge and rural area … houses are scattered and he did not appear to belong in the hamlet we had traversed. The Bean was getting fed up with being carried to prevent canine fisticuffs so we decided to release her and let them bond or not. At this point I named the dog Boomerang for not so subtle reasons. We spoke to him in French – he was quite forgiving of our accents but he obviously had absolutely no notion whatsoever of discipline.
An hour later, so three hours into the walk, we decided it was time for lunch. The puppy sat nicely on the other side of the track on whose grassy verge we had plonked our behinds and watched intently as HB2 wielded the Opinel (as essential a French accessory as a mobile phone to an adolescent, this is a wooden handled foldable knife which comes in a huge variety of sizes … the blade on ours is about 3 inches) to cut cheese and bread. What lovely manners I murmured – he clearly knows not to disturb his humans when they are eating. The words barely vapourised in the air, he leapt up and floored me and I, like a beetle on my back, was helpless to fend off his face-licking. ‘Non’ bellowed Two Brains at which the dog fell back looked around and seized up my spectacle case before bounding up the path and lying down with his trophy triumphantly pinned between his front paws. We hastily finished our peturbed picnic and packed up. The dog surrendered the glasses case and off we set again.
The day was hot and of course got hotter as hot days always will, so when we entered the sweet and tiny hamlet, no more than a farm, a couple of houses and the remains of a church now welded to a barn, we were gently fatigued. Actually we failed to notice the welded church as we searched for the table d’orientation so that we could regally survey the landscape laid out below us. We found, we surveyed and we assumed l’ancien eglise must have succumbed to the elements at some point because it was no-where to be seen. Assume, as our youngest daughter regularly reminds me, makes an ass out of you and me. And as we walked on now following yellow markers (we had been following green and then green and yellow together which is not unusual – the paths often link for a while) and occasionally consulting the book for reference points the terrible truth began to dawn. We, The Bean and the adopted dog which showed absolutely no sign of fatigue were on a different walk. And the walk was taking us in entirely the wrong direction. In this terrain it is not a simple matter of backtracking so we took the decision to continue in a circle back to the village with the viewing point. And from there try to find our own walk. That this meant in total a deviation of 6 km with a stray dog seemed perfectly reasonable to our heat-shrunk minds. And so it was that this raggle taggle foursome made its way back into the village and joy of joys there, beside the welded church which we had failed to notice before which was indeed (as the book told us it was) opposite a table d’orientation (not the one we had found earlier but one looking in the opposite direction – so we have now regally surveyed the entire 360 degrees of landscape laid out before us in this lovely spot), joy of joys in addition there was life – there were people. Real people. A woman coming out of her milking parlour, two little girls of around 6 years old and a smaller little boy and, as it turned out, the most joyous of all – Granny! The imposter dog disgraced himself by hurling upon the children with us shouting – ‘he’s not ours – he’s following us’. But as deranged as this must have sounded these lovely people helped us. Granny really. The younger woman did not understand a map which is entirely reasonable given that she knows perfectly well where she is and doubtless can find her way anywhere necessary with no problem at all. They clearly thought us mad to be wanting to walk but Granny showed us the way, even tipping us off for a shortcut and with much waving, sighing relief and many thanks we continued on what would be the last 5 or 6 km of our epic journey. The dog was still with us – Granny had advised us to find the mayor in the town and pass the problem to him. We felt rather bonded to Boomerang by now and agreed that if we were by now in our own house with a garden (the search is on) we would keep him.
It was on this last part of the journey that I realised that he had clearly been a commando in a previous life. He took to leaping up high banks and running ahead of us only to explode down on us again when we least expected it. This was very funny except when we were walking high above a small river and he decided the best approach was to divebomb The Bean and see how funny she would look bouncing down the sides of what, in my tired, vaguely emotional and borderline delirious state seemed to be a very steep ravine. We put him on her lead (perfectly adaquate for her, this slender piece of leather looked more than faintly ridiculous on the overgrown puppy). It was clearly a new experience and took all of Two Brains strength to keep him vaguely steady. At the end of the path, relieved that we were coming into the last village before our destination, we let him run again. We were just congratulating ourselves at how clever we were to train him a teeny bit in the hours (and by now it had been 5 hours) he had been with us when he bowled us the googly of the day. At the entrance to the village was a huge, very old and very deep water trough – the sort that entire small herds of cattle could take their fill at when moving from field to field or field to barn for milking. The sort that appear in Constable paintings of rural idyll in the 18th Century. Rambiggles the divebombing commando dog went over to look, braced himself and leaped in. Being steep sided he could not get out. That in itself was bad enough but I should tell you that the water was gloriously embellished with hugely swollen cowpats across its entires surface … how, why, I know not. I prefer to keep it that way. Sighing the sigh of the resolute and exasperated, Two Brains walked over, hooked the dogs collar and pulled. I held my breath so hard I think I may have turned blue because Two Brains can’t swim. Images swam infront of my tired eyes of me, anchored by The Bean, having to pull the pair of them out. Or me diving in and shouldering them as The Bean hooked them out. I was well and truly scared. I am happy to report that none of this came to pass and the dog was liberated. And liberally drenched us with stinking water as he shook himself dry.
Onwards to our destination and we sank onto the tailgate of our car, changed our boots, ate biscuits and wondered what on earth to do … Sunday night is not the night to find a mayor and we didn’t feel like ringing 112 and declaring an emergency. Lights from the Auberge called us like moths and we walked in – it was quite a chic establishment and we looked and probably smelt like something you would cross the street to avoid, but thankfully the lady in charge was sweet and accomodating and took control. Dog was fed, shut in and the Mayor informed in the morning. We have since heard that he has been returned to his rightful owners. For how long is a dubious question – this dog is in dire need of a high fence, a strong lead and Barbara Woodhouse (or for those of you not old enough to remember her … Dog Borstal!)
PS: The necessary PS. So touched were we by the lovely attitude of the family high up on the rounded hill who helped us that the following week we returned with a box of sweets to thank them. The look on the face of Granny and the children was enough to warm my heart for the rest of my life. We chatted for a while – she said she was pleased to have helped us, that she could no longer walk where we had walked but she used to and is sad those days are behind her. She told us she had been to our part of Cantal and that she liked Saignes (about 10 km from us) because of its beautiful Roman Chapel. The children, dark limpid eyes fixed earnestly on the tin with its sweet delights to come, listened, smiled and waved us off as we drove away. I am certain that they thought us dotty but they didn’t judge us, had never expected to see us again in their isolated spot where they have lived and will live out their lives, and will live in my memory for the rest of my life as an example of who I would like to be.
It could be said that mine is a curious existence, living here in one of the least populated areas of Europe on my own. I came here 5 months ago with horribly rusty French. I came here with few possessions – so much either sold or abandoned along the way as I moved and moved and moved again. I came here for love. But my husband, my love, lives in Boston. Yes, its a curious life. One day I’ll explain.
The last week, though, has been punctuated with knocks on the door. I inevitably feel a mild panic when this happens because it means I will HAVE to listen, understand and respond. I am fluent in shopping as previously acknowledged but a knock on the door could herald anything at all. Particularly an unexpected one. Like the time when the post-lady brought a letter each for signature for Two Brains and I. I managed to explain that he wasn’t arriving from the US til the weekend but I was so flustered I couldn’t find my passport as ID for her – she became equally alarmed as she thought I had permanently mislaid it and explained very patiently to me that I can’t travel out of France without a passport. It was only afterwards that I began to wonder if she was alarmed at the prospect that they might not be able to get rid of me …..
March 23rd is polling day in France. Les Elections Municipales. They happen every 6 years and will result in new Conseils Municipales and new Maires across France – some will be returned, some overturned. In essence, we vote for the governing body for our Commune and they in turn will vote amongst their triumphant team for their leader and deputies. We are fortunate in Champs – our Maire, his adjunct and the Conseil are proactive and hard-working. I see the Maire tearing around the place at a rate of knots on foot and in his car. He is very hands-on and has the most fantastic gaelic shrug to ice the bun. I know him reasonably well as a person (he married us last year and graciously accepted our invitation to attend our wedding breakfast and is tireless in his support of the lightning lab.) and I know he has the interests of his, geographically very large, commune and its relatively small and scattered population genuinely at centre stage in his life. As the ruling party, as it were, his get the opening crack at canvassing. So the first knock was from ‘Dialogue et Action’ and I was treated to two smiling faces, an acknowledgement that I know Monsieur le Maire and was left with lists, biographies, an overview of achievements and their manifesto for the next 6 years.
A few days later, the oppostion are allowed out. A further knock and I am greeted with another pair of smiling faces, a further list of names, biographies and their manifesto for the next 6 years. Of course on closer scrutiny they are critical of the old guard and it is not a surprise that their collective name is ‘Champs Avance’ with a strapline declaring an intention to donner un nouveau souffle a Champs (invigorate or quite literally give fresh breath). That the opposition are highly critical of the old guard is hardly newsworthy. This is politics.
I will not reveal my hand – both manifestos are interesting, my opinion is not. Both highlight the issues facing this pays perdu. I am priviliged to be allowed to vote. I am European and I pay taxe foncière and taxe d’habitation so I am eligible. I take the responsibiity seriously and have reflected hard.
In doing so I walked from Montboudif, a little over 10 miles from here, this little village is the birthplace of Georges Pompidouand the people of Cantal are justly proud of the fact. Pompidou was France’s longest serving prime-minister under the fifth republic. As a little girl, I loved his name – it was one to be uttered and repeated annoyingly to my mother (mummy, mummy, mummy – I can say POMPIDOOOOO) and I remember him as President and his death in 1974 whilst in office. I also remember visiting Le Centre Pompidou in Paris first in 1977, shortly after it was opened, as a 17 year old and again on honeymoon with my first husband when he took a picture of me with my mouth wide open next to a huge funnel to demonstrate the size of my gob. Let’s face it – the marriage was doomed from the start!
That Pompidou was a diplomat and chose peaceful means to resolve issues such as the angry student uprising in the late 60’s, is no surprise to me given his heritage. It is also no surprise that he came back to the region often. I imagine he breathed the fresh, fresh air and felt the beautiful fertile earth under his feet and returned to the frey invigorated as Two Brains does these decades later. Along the way I chatted to two elderly men – one splitting logs with all the vigour of a man half his age, pointed out that his little tiny tangle of houses looks at the Monts Dor in one direction and Monts du Cantal in the other – he asked why he would ever want to live anywhere else? I could only agree.
The other, thrilled to find I live here definitivement told me to come look him up if I need a steer on houses to buy in Montboudif … don’t use an Immobilier, he said – they are all crooks! I hastened not to comment, feeling that virtually in front of Mr Pompidou’s maison natal I should adopt the line of least contention. But having local ears to the ground will certainly prove invaluable when we come to the search for Le Manoir ….
The third knock came and I assumed there must be a third list. I should have remembered my youngest daughter’s apharism that ‘assume makes an ass out of you and me’, but instead I opened the door onto the dark landing (I will tell you all about the unique nature of the electrical system here another time but suffice to say that the lights in the communal area were having a bad hair day). There stood a slight elderly man on his own. He did have a leather bag under his arm which I assumed (there’s that word again) as I hastily said entree s’il vous plait to get him out of the gloom, contained the list of names, biographies, and manifesto plus critique of the old guard. Then I heard the words that strike terror into the hearts of most …. je suis le temoin de Jehovah. Panic coursed through me – I had allowed a Jehovah’s Witness into the appartment and I needed above all to get to the boulangerie before it shut at 12. It was now 10:30 – this could be difficult. I smiled and told him I am Buddhist. This has always worked in England. It isn’t strictly true but I was married to a Buddhist for several years and I do still live by some of the rules as part of my own gobbledegook belief system. He smiled gently and asked how I explain the creation.
Remember this is all in French. Remember too that I was slated to read Philosophy at Cambridge when whatever God you attune to was still in nappies so I am hard-wired to theological debate. Yet it was not combat but his gentle spirit that captivated me and I was away – all fear of spoken French disappeared and I passed what I can genuinely tell you was a lovely 30 minutes. He told me his son in law (not a JW) spent 2 years in England and he would happily introduce me if I need any help with understanding documents and so forth, he listened as I told him that Two Brains is a scientist of some note – he was particularly interested in the Trous Noirs and hopes that the presentation will be repeated – gave me his number so I can let him know when/if. He told me about a lovely Indian fellow who lives in Bort who has done some notable research into the workings of the mind. I told him that my life is about learning, learning and learning. I also apologised for speaking French comme une vache espagnole. He said he liked my modesty. It actually was not modest just simple truth but the comment was kindly meant. He left after 30 minutes, did not give me a copy of Watchtower and I hope I run into him again. Whatever his beliefs, you see, he is a kind and lovely fellow.
The two men on my walk were kind and lovely fellows.
A friend of mine mentioned a film called ‘Field of Dreams’ on FaceBook the other day. If you build it they will come, says the voice. I am fortunate to be in a place steeped in history with the most fantastic natural landscape (volcano? Two a penny here mate!) and a population of genuinely content people. The pity is that they are leaving, the young seeking employment in the cities because they have no choice. I would like to breathe life back into this place. So that this place will breathe vibrantly for all the years to come. I have started and little by little I will achieve what I can – how can I resist when I am surrounded by such simple charm?
If I build it, will you come?
PS: I have broken most of my rules in this post – don’t talk about politics, avoid talking about religion, step away from the too-personal but the one I would urge you all to adhere to is this:
Never, ever, EVER eat anything with surprise in its title, in a restaurant …..