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.
I’m a simple soul. I prefer to have a positive spin for most things and I tend not to be deterred or detained by obstacles. There is generally a way over or round them and it just takes a little old-fashioned patience and a dollop of bluddy mindedness to get to the other side.
I married my beloved HB² not quite five years ago in our village in the Cantal and set about working towards the next phase of my life which was to be a life in Massachusetts because that is where he is based. Simple. Except that the process of getting Lawful Permanent Residency is not simple. And if you stick with me, you will learn that simple as I am, if there is a way to eek some drama and comedy out of a process or a situation, I am truly and simply your leading girl.
Whilst we waited, I settled in France. It was the sensible thing to do. We had bought a little house there (these days named, at least in my head, la Maison Catastrophe) and it made sense for me to give up my corporate London career with attendant regulated holidays and be in a place we love, and free to travel and be with His Brainship as frequently as possible. We waited and we waited and we waited. The process was as appealing as digging ones own eyeballs out with a spoon and as swift as paddling a canoe upstream with that same piece of cutlery. Such is life. Rules are rules and resisting them is both foolish and ultimately futile. We waited. We occasionally uncovered evidence that the great beast that is this bureaucratic process actually did have a pulse and it would lurch into life and ask a question or demand information before lapsing back into its apparently dorment state once more. And we did as we were asked and always with a smile and a twirl. And between smiles and twirls, we waited.
During this time, I nested and rooted and felt at home. In France. In 2016 the kindly beast allowed me a special visa so that I could spend the year in the USA but travel in and out freely. I had a lovely time and I felt quite homely . When I left in December I felt rather sad. Back in France I ingrained and entrenched some more and I began to assume that the permission to enter the United States and live there as a ‘Lawful Permanent Resident’ (Green Card holder as it is known in the vernacular) would never arrive. I qualified as an English Teacher. My French improved incrementally and raised itself far above it’s previous Spanish Cow default, for living in a city (Grenoble) rather than in the middle of truly no-whereland (Cantal) with far more opportunity to interact beyond the basics of shopping and passing the time of day with the Monsieur le Maire and the old lady opposite and I felt entirely and completely settled and content that I could count down the days to my husband’s retirement and that all shall be jolly and well in the meantime.
The phone call came at 3 a.m my time and a voice uttered ‘areyousittingdown’ to which I wittily, it must be said, responded that I was lying down since it was the middle of the night. If I had been sitting I would have fallen off my chair. As it was the bed was capacious enough to prevent me from rolling onto the floor. That pesky Juice Man had pressed the green light and all systems were go for the last lap to the finish line. That it was a lumpy bumpy descent I will write of another time but the fact is that I sat for days feeling bewildered. Of course I was thrilled that finally I would be able to live with my love and be what we intended when we married …. to.geth.er. But all of a sudden I was facing leaving France. And that, as one of the positive batalion of my friends named Philippe is sweetly fond of saying ‘Urt me in ze ‘eart’.
So for now I have left France. I will be devoting Friday to France from now on ‘FrenchFriday’ if you will and bringing you the stories that have remained untold from my tenure there.
And to kick off my other series, ‘Melting–PotMonday’ which will bring your stories from this side of the pond, The Bean will guest-write the first instalment. She has been quite disarmingly insistent that her version of events needs to be told and is highly excited at the opportunity to flex her pokey little paws on the keyboard.
To note is the fact that all the pictures in this post have featured before on my blog. I am currently away from base and it proved a step too taxing for the hotel internet to allow me to upload new pictures from my iPhotos library
PS: The title is from one of my favourite songs by one of my first and everlasting loves. Marianne in the context of this article is the National symbol of the French Republic portraying a Goddess of Liberty and representing that liberty and reason which in the end is really what we all should strive for, n’est-ce pas? So long Marianne, keep my place at the table, I’ll be back before too long.
And your bonus, with the added quite gaspingly delicious noisette that when I was at school, my enviably beautiful and absolutely aspirational classmate Sara Trill announced to those of us that affected intellectual by hanging out in the library that my father was the image of Mr Cohen himself – I took this as the highest praise by proxy (and let’s face facts, gauche girls like me had to grab the crumbs where they fell), and blushed decorously whilst purring internally for days. Months actually. Possibly my whole life through if I’m honest …..
And because this is a post about feeling forlorn about leaving a favourite, and because WordPress in their infinite wisdom have cancelled their weekly photo challenge making me and so many others a little wan and sad, and because their last challenge is ‘All-Time Favourites’ and I don’t have one, I will instead include this in the veritable feast of entries to be found here and bid one of the best things about WordPress adieu with a heavy heart.
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.
Until I was fifteen, I had two Grannies. My paternal granny was always known as Granny Kim on account of her eponymous, over-stuffed cat which resembled a large tabby cushion and used to lie on the half-landing of her staircase in a sunspot meditating fatly. Granny had only one arm. The other was lost in The First World War. Amputated on account of gangrene, not mislaid. She was a nurse as so many of the women of her generation were. She never expected to marry after losing her limb. With the over-abundance of women to the dreadfully depleted stock of men when peace followed the tragically dubbed ‘war to end all wars’, she rather felt that her fate was dancing with other spinster women and dreaming of a never-to-be love. However in time, quite some time, she met my Grandfather who had had his vocal chords severed by the village doctor during an emergency traceotomy as a child and from then on could only speak in a whisper – as a point of interest he spoke nine languages fluently in his whisper. From time to time I remember to contemplate the thanks I owe the physician who, respecting his hippocratic oath, in that moment saved a young boy’s life and by doing so gave me the chance of birth. Granny Kim used to say that they were two cripples together. I imagine these days she might be shushed and cautioned against deflowering delicate sensibilities with her candid comment.
Granny Kim (who I have written about before) was irresistibly irreverent. She had seemingly no filter between what was in her head and what came out of her mouth. For example the busty girl tottering down the seafront in tightest of tight, scoopiest of scooped angora sweater must clearly have heard the shrilly uttered ‘VERY uplifted’ from the neat tweed clad old woman tottering toward her. And the French neighbour of my own new to motherhood mummy proudly showing off her own newborn to Granny was asked what she had called the child. ‘James’, replied Madame. ‘And James was a very small snail’ said Granny. It’s A A Milne, from ‘The Four Friends’ but the French lady, so my mother reports, was visibly and vividly offended and operated the etiquette of ‘on ne peut plus se voir’ which as Mel of France Says explains ever eloquently her means ‘one cannot see you any more’ and literally makes the recipient invisible ever after. My mother wondered if she imagined Granny was calling her sprog a frog. She wasn’t. She was saying the first thing that popped into her head. I have the same tendency. I try to control it. I frequently fail.
So what is that preamble about. Well, with only one arm Granny had a drawer FULL of single gloves kindly donated by countless people over the years who had mislaid it’s pair. She found it ceaselessly amusing that people never stopped in their surge of waste-not-want-not good heartedness, to think that their gift was only useful if it happened to be the correct glove for Granny’s remaining hand. Therefore she had a quite magnificent collection of single gloves languishing in tissue paper which she had graciously accepted rather than burst anyone’s bubble of well meant intent.
Which brings me to Grenoble. Grenoble was, for many years the capital of glove-making in France. The giants of glove-making made fortunes and the most revered of all was a man named Xavier Jouvin. He has an entire quartier dedicated to his name – looking over the river it is lovely and there is a large statue of him in the middle of it’s main square. I have become very fascinated with Xav and found out that he is most revered for having created a form of mass-production of gloves. He fashioned a machine that could cut up to SIX pairs, six mind you, of identical gloves at one go. Breathtaking in 1838. When I leave Grenoble, it will be with a pair of hand-made Grenoblois gloves to remember my time by.
You might recall that I was previously living in a positively palatial apartment provided by the institute that my husband was doing a tranche of work for in the first 6 months of this year. Amongst other delights it had corinthian columns and as the time approached to leave it I seriously considered chaining myself to these pillars and refusing to leave. I had however, a last-minute change of heart and decided that I would leave quietly and with gratitude for the time we had spent there. Sugaring pills tends to provide incentive, I find. My candied pellet is this: the place we found, the small apartment that is less than a third of the size of the other, is contained in what the French call Un Hôtel Particulier which is in effect a grand residence built as the town house for someone of importance. Guess who? Well so far, I know it was one of the great glovemen but I am not able to finitely say which one. Of course I hope its M. Jouvin Xavier. I am currently researching more thoroughly but this oasis in the centre of Grenoble has given me the rare chance to live in a very special building that retains much of it’s original fabric. From the hand painted walls in the entrance hall to the beautiful tiling and ceilings it is wonderful. I have the luxury of a terrace and a garden and best of all I have a double curved staircase up to the front door which makes me feel that I should be wearing kid gloves and matching slippers with some sort of an empire line Lizzy Bennet dress and bonnet with thick silky ribbons neath my chinny chin chin, at all times. My quarters are exquisite, dare I say better than the last place and also retain a cornucopia of original features. If you would like, I will share the innards of this place I am occupying … I’m happy to but I never want to overtax with tedium..
PS: Granny Kim was fond of reciting this poem and peeling with laughter at it’s quite gasping ghastliness. I had never paid it much heed except to recite it idly and wince when having flashbacks to Granny Kim in her hammock. Until today, when incubating this post it popped into my head spontaneously and inevitably. I thought I should find out who IS responsible for this vacuous verse.
It was written by a woman called Frances Darwin Cornford. She was the grand-daughter of the immeasurably brilliant Charles Darwin. Ironically it seems that the father of evolutionary theory had a somewhat poorly evolved grandchild. As it turns out
G K Chesterton agreed with me. Read his wonderfully ascerbic response to this quite appalling effort, please do …
To A Lady Seen From A Train
Frances Darwin Cornford
O why do you walk through the fields in gloves, Missing so much and so much? O fat white woman whom nobody loves, Why do you walk through the fields in gloves, When the grass is soft as the breast of doves And shivering sweet to the touch? O why do you walk through the fields in gloves, Missing so much and so much
The Fat White Woman Speaks
G K Chesterton
Why do you rush through the field in trains, Guessing so much and so much? Why do you flash through the flowery meads, Fat-head poet that nobody reads; And why do you know such a frightful lot About people in gloves and such? And how the devil can you be sure, Guessing so much and so much, How do you know but what someone who loves Always to see me in nice white gloves At the end of the field you are rushing by, Is waiting for his Old Dutch?
And as a bonus because I swiped it for my title, The Smiths belt out ‘Hand in Glove’ in Glasgow on this date (September 25th) 1985 – it fits perfectly, as all good gloves should
Such little lives we live if only we would admit it. All of us however fêted. Marking out our pathetic tiny snail trails as we go. Imprinting what we do – good, bad, downright ugly through our little journey. Imagining ourselves important or impotent when in fact neither is probably true.
Stanley Kunitz, born in a place that I ran (or rather more accurately staggered) last Autumn at a time when I thought I would never run again has it right in this poem. I, me, mine … not at all relevant when you equate the microscopic me to the great landscape of time in which we exist. Just let’s protect what we have – we can do our little bit by acting decently, by regarding others with an importance not by dint of their shoes or their achievements or their accumulated wealth but just because. Because they co-exist with us on this planet we all accidentally find ourselves on.
I have indeed walked through many lives. All of them in this skin. And I will not be done and I will not give up hope until I draw my fatal last breath. Never. Not at all. I am many layered and yet simple cored just like you … if we all accept that, the rest is blissfully uncomplicated. I give you this in answer to the weekly photo challenge titled ‘Layered’ of which a delicious gallery of entries you will find here.
I have walked through many lives, some of them my own, and I am not who I was, though some principle of being abides, from which I struggle not to stray. When I look behind, as I am compelled to look before I can gather strength to proceed on my journey, I see the milestones dwindling toward the horizon and the slow fires trailing from the abandoned camp-sites, over which scavenger angels wheel on heavy wings. Oh, I have made myself a tribe out of my true affections, and my tribe is scattered! How shall the heart be reconciled to its feast of losses? In a rising wind the manic dust of my friends, those who fell along the way, bitterly stings my face. Yet I turn, I turn, exulting somewhat, with my will intact to go wherever I need to go, and every stone on the road precious to me. In my darkest night, when the moon was covered and I roamed through wreckage, a nimbus-clouded voice directed me: “Live in the layers, not on the litter.” Though I lack the art to decipher it, no doubt the next chapter in my book of transformations is already written. I am not done with my changes.
PS: The picture is taken at Vassieux-en-Vercors where people lived and died in a rather more profound way than I can ever begin to imagine.
The very first walk I ever took in Grenoble was a tentative totter up to le Bastille which sits some 400 metres above the city. I casually strolled up through le Jardins de Dauphines and found myself facing Philis. Philis is rather arresting in a slightly aggressive warrior sort of way poised casually astride her rearing steed brandishing one-handed some sort of lethal rapier. Clearly this is a woman to laugh in the face of weak-minded affectations of femininity like sitting side-saddle or wearing frocks and who would not shirk from skewering all comers with her dirk. In fairness and for the aforementioned reasons, I did not instantly realise she is a she, portrayed as she is as a rather masculine, if a little foppishly dressed fighter. Of course, mens’ fashions were, a little frou frou in 17th Century France. I inched closer and it was clear that I was, indeed, beholding a gallant gal.
Philis is a legend. We all know what legends are, I hope. Legends are stories that are so old that no one can remember if they are true or not. Keep that front of mind as we sashay elegantly forward. Philis was born Philippe de la Tour du Pin de la Charce in 1645, the fifth child of high falootin’ tootin’ parents – hardly a surprise given the full mouthful of a name they blithely gave their infant. At the age of six her Aunt, a poet of some acclaim, took her to watch a series of Roman plays in Nyon and SO amazed was the girl named Phil that she promptly declared she was changing her name that very minute to the entirely Roman Philis. Which, let’s face facts was probably just a clever ruse to get a more girlie name. However, it became clear that she had no intention of being a damsel, even though her newly acquired name was a little less … manly, more maidenly. She competed brilliantly with her brothers and became a breathtaking horsewoman and dashing blade wielder. She fell in love with a Catholic, became betrothed when he promised to convert to the Protestant version of exactly the same faith as his but, a little caddishly one might observe, he reneged on his pledge. She then did what any self-respecting jilted girl might resolve to do … she became an even better horsewoman and an even greater blade and vowed that she would not so much as look at another man except down on him from high on her hot-blooded stallion.
This area of France is historically named le Dauphiné which means ‘dolphin’ and accounts for the fact that though we are 275km (170 miles) from our nearest coastline, there are an awful lot of dolphin references around the city. Forward to 1690 and enter stage right or left depending whether you are facing North or South, Victor Amedée II. You are absolved of any guilt for not remotely realising there was a Victor Amedée I, even though it actually turns out that, in fact there was also a further Victor Amedée imaginatively named Victor Amedée III. Victor’s correct title was Victor Amedée Duc de Savoie. Savoie was next door to le Dauphiné (it still is) but he had absolutely no intention of being an affable neighbour. He far preferred the idea of snatching the Dauphiné lands to add to his already bulging, to the point of vulgar, property portfolio. According to her legend, Philis organised a résistance and heading an army of peasants she successfully saved her region from the marauding Victor. The rather mealy-mouthed scolars who variously argued the story for over 100 years, claim she simply fronted a band of looters who often came here “to collect contributions from citizens of local towns and villages” and that it was thanks to her relations with the French Royal Court in Paris that she was ever rewarded with a pension from King Louis XIV. Whichever version you choose, by the 19th Century her myth had mushroomed and for a while she was called Jean d’Arc du Dauphiné. Several historians have muted her laurels but she is still proudly acclaimed Heroine de Dauphine on her statue. I know which version I prefer.
And as this guest piece is being written for a cookery blog I thought it only fitting that I give you an appropriate recipe: Le vrai Gratin Dauphinois. You will kindly notice that a real Gratin Dauphinois has no cheese in it even though it is said that Escoffier experimented and was rumoured to occasionally add a little. Like a Quiche Lorraine, here in this Gratin’s spiritual home, the real deal has no cheese and that is how I infinitely prefer it. If you doubt me, give it a try – I promise it is a sumptuous experience that belies its meager list of ingredients.
Ingredients: Potatoes – not waxy new ones. King Edwards are perfect
Double cream or Crême Fraiche – you can dilute with milk if you prefer. I don’t prefer.
Freshly ground nutmeg
Freshly ground black pepper
Salt – if your butter is unsalted Method:
Preheat oven to 150C
Butter a shallow but not too shallow oven-proof dish
Peel (reserve the peelings) enough potatoes to fill the dish when thinly sliced
Rub with a cut clove of garlic
Peel, chop and smoosh the garlic
Slice potatoes into slender rounds – some use a mandolin, I don’t have one so I just keep them as thin as I can without adding slivers of finger – never elegant
Layer the potatoes with a sprinkling of garlic, grated nutmeg and ground pepper
Repeat til all the potatoes are used – three layers for my dish
Dot with butter (mine has salt crystals so I don’t add salt)
Drench it in cream – I used 50cl
Bake for 2½ hours until bubbling, unctuous and smelling like your life depends on eating it. In fairness, your life WILL be incomplete if you don’t.
I served ours with green beans and Diot. Diots are a traditional Savoyard sausage. I apologise for being unable to resist the irony …
PS: Eat only fruit for many days afterwards as a penance for the ambrosial decadence of the dish and to notionally save the impending blockade in your arteries. But not before you have triumphantly taken up the saved peelings, coated them in a little oil of choice (always olive chez moi) and a good grind of black pepper. Or frankly whatever you like to season them, who am I to dictate to you? Pop them in a highish oven for 10 minutes. Recline on sofa or chaise longue and idly nibble as a little snackette with your choice of libation.
PS: The title is Julia Child – une heroine culinaire
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 ….
If you’ve taken even a cursory interest in my drivel over the past however long, you will know that I wander around a lot both actually and metaphorically. A friend from my teeny tiny tot-rearing stage recently commented on FaceBook that she never knows where I am. Tempted though I am to serenely claim that I am being mysterious and elusive, the truth is that I generally have no idea quite where I am, what I am doing nor where I am going.
Appearances are often deceptive and I know that I am a confusing condundrum. I present as ultra-outgoing and sociable but the truth is, that although I find it quite easy to be the happy-go-lucky life and soul of the gathering, I am in fact rather the hermit and I certainly need time to recharge and that time is generally taken alone.
Enter my wanderings. I walk muchly and often as a solitary bee (with the noble and frankly ego-centric exception of The Bean and of course, when available, a goodly dollop of husband) and I find my re-set button pressed gently and effectively when I do.
Friends, true friends, I have few and, in keeping with, I believe, many, Social Media has interfered with this natural equilibrium. I partake less and less in the babbling noise, the king for a day, something to say because I am a self-invented expert-ness of it. I will flatter myself that I was rather good at it but it is akin, I think to rather good at tooting cocaine … it falsely bolsters you up and erodes your olafactory receptors to the detriment of having a decent pair of nostrils with which to twitch and inhale sensitively your surroundings. It has a place, of course it does (Social Media, not cocaine) but I think we really do need to be a little careful of this creeping addiction. And the way in which it induces behaviours that we would not normally indulge in. Think selfies and I will rest my case. For the avoidance of doubt there are those of you here in this blogging place, where we actually give some thought to what we are spewing out, that I do consider friends even though we have never met.
I do have a few lifers. I use the word wisely, for it surely must be some sort of sentence to be embraced wholeheartedly to my bosom and kept there. One such is JimPig. He came to me through a husband who was to prove diabolically damaging but The Pig stayed and I am glad he did. When we met, I already had a daughter and he had a son. I taught his son to skateboard. This made them both happy. My girlie was shy of 18 months old when we met and I made him her honorary Godfather. He bought her a chocolate stegasaurus from Harrods which stood on her special things shelf for years until she took it to a ‘show and tell’ aged 6 and the teacher confiscated it because it was chocolate, stashed it in her cupboard from where it fell on the floor when the door was opened and smashed into irrepairable pieces. The head teacher gave the 6 year old a ruler from Australia as a consolation. It didn’t work. My daughter is still stinging from the loss of her precious dinosaur – the scars will stay for her lifetime, doubtless.
JimPig is probably the greatest waste of academic talent I will ever meet. I hope he is because any greater would be dreadfully sad. Not that he is sad. His grandfather died when he was a Trinity Dublin under graduate and left him a legacy which was just enough to live a simple life on. A selfish life some would say. He is a linguist. He speaks eight languages fluently. Not that he will ever admit he is fluent. Linguists are like that. He looks like ‘Where’s Wally’ (that’s Waldo if you are from the US side of the Atlantic and as I am reminded by the quite marvellous Mel (of France Says) in the comments and one whom I certainly consider a friend ‘Ou est Charlie’ in France). Uncannily like him to the extent that when Wally was at the height of his sneaky powers sometime in the 1990s I walked into a large bookshop in Oxford and asked for the lifesize cardboard marketing Wally which they duly allowed me to bear delightedly away and stash in the boot of my Volvo three weeks later. The Pig feigned delighted when I presented it to him as a gift. I am sure it was feigned because I don’t think he either knew who Wally was or cared to find out.
It was the aforementioned daughter who christened him JimPig and no-one, least of all she, knows why. She was two years old at the time which is forgiveable. The rest of us were clearly not concentrating which may be less forgiveable. On her eighteenth birthday she had an interview for a London college and I suggested that we have grown-up lunch at the place of her choosing and invite The beloved Pig. She chose a very fashionable Italian restaurant for the flimsy and entirely defenceable-at-eighteen reason that it was known as a fertile celebrity hunting ground. We were late. There was a blizzard and we were tottering on foolish heels on frozen Mayfair pavements which I find iron hard and unforgiving at the best of times. When we arrived there was a rather tatty bike chained to the railings outside. We made eye-contact, nodded and mouthed ‘Pig’ in unison. Inside we were relieved of our chic designer tweed coats in which instants before we had been proud to be seen but which all of a sudden made us feel like hulking hicks from sticksville on account of the frankly frightening volume of furs that adorned the unfeasibly high-cheekboned, skinny thighed, sky-scraping legged Slavic ladies being lunched by slavering red-faced pinstripes quietly drooling across tables far too tightly squooshed into the odd interior of this modish canteen which included an incongrous porthole with views of raging seas behind it. It had the effect of inducing a sort of hypnotic nausea which seemed rather inappropriate in an eatery. In the midst of this, entirely oblivious to his contradictory appearance was The Pig. Wearing worn to softly transparent chinos and battered converse high-tops and with his shiny anorak on the back of his stylish but clearly, from his air of sitting on a wasp, wholly uncomfortable chair and his wreck of a rucksack stashed on another he was reading Herman Hesse in Italian. Because he could and because it was an Italian restaurant. The staff were clearly bewildered by this apparition. Was he so rich that he simply didn’t need to care what others thought, or was he truly a tramp? We sashayed over and joined him, landing proper smackers on his waiting cheeks – no air kisses shall pass on my shift absorbing but ignoring the collective startled intake of breath from the other, clearly far more sophisticated than we, diners. As it turned out lunch was mediocre but the company was divine. The Pig is hyper smart and raises you to levels of mental agility that are simultaneously stimulating and exhausting. When the bill came I was rendered white at the gills appalled … I was paying and it was twice plus some what I had expected. Of course I seamlessly effected nonchalence but kept the receipt and on checking at home discovered that each and every one of the small bottles of water we had drunk had cost £10. I counselled the daughter earnestly and urgently that in future it would be far better if she always insisted on the finest vintage champagne … I know for a fact from her friends and her husband that she took this sage advice earnestly to heart.
PS: The quote is from Herman Hesse’s 1920 work Wandering:’Home is neither here nor there. Home is within you, or home is nowhere at all.’ My picture is of Grenoble which is my home for the moment. I have read Wandering only in English, The Pig has, quite naturally, read it in several languages. It is only when I consider the cover now that I realise The Pig looks rather like Hesse.
The Pig, by the way, like my two brained husband has no Social Media accounts. Interesting. Perhaps. Do we think?
PPS: I couldn’t possibly write a piece in response to a challenge called ‘Wanderlust’ (the full library of noble entries here) without adding this moment from ‘A Fish Called Wanda’ … I quite simply couldn’t – enjoy.