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

This giddying excitement is almost too much for a girl to take so I can’t imagine how you are coping!   Here we are on the second Monday in a row and I’m still keeping the promise that I will devote each start of the week day to a post in the series chronicling the tale of our restoration of a former Medieval Watch Tower in Southern France.

Today, by way of wrapping up the satiating feast of retrospective posts I delivered last week, I thought I would write a little about the history as we now know it, which, it turns out, is rather different to the original tale we were told at the start of this neverending story.

When we first laid eyes on the reality of the place on a freezing cold late January day in 2013 we were assured that the tower, built in 1203, simply fell into neglect and disrepair over the years and the that villagers had, quite understandably, swiped what they fancied and upcycled it into their own abodes.  Not so, mes braves.  In fact the tower was wilfully destroyed at some point in the early 1790s when news filtered through that the revolution  had brought down the Monarchy and flattenened (for a while) the old feudal systems, replacing them with a République that had no need for visible signs of the rule of church and king, hand in glove.

The correct name for the tower as it stood was ‘un tour seigneurial’.  Ours was the first place built in what would become the village of Marcolès.  It was inhabited by a feudal Lord who was, as in many cases, also the priest.  After it was constructed, and satisfied that he could survey everything around him, a church was built, and then another.  I think we can rest content that our Seigneur was a man of some excess.  Two churches within what is a tiny city wall seems a trifle indulgent. Rather the medieval equivalent of those, so much richer than I, who bring out my most churlish streak by insisting on parading an endless array of unfeasibly expensive motor cars a single one of which would buy me a perfectly good house in which to live a quiet and unobtrusive life.      At this time, the population was several thousand in the minuscule area that constitutes the walled ‘cité’ … these days in the whole commune, which is one of the largest in hectarage in the whole of Cantal, we number barely 500  in the village and all it’s hamlets.  It must have been quite something.

The present Eglise de Saint Martin was built in the XVth Century and at that time was one of two churches surveyed by the Tour Seigneurial

Thus, during the revolution the tower was deliberately toppled but in fact much of it remained.  To attic level for a little less than half of the building and up to first lintel height for the rest.  My mind conjures an image of zealous villagers, positively inebriated with joy at the  news of the fall of the Monarchy and the old-guard, advancing vigorously on that ancient and extremely sturdy construction and giving it utter hell for some while, bearing off their plundered stone with fervored delight.  After the first flush of frenzied looting I imagine them losing steam, scratching weary heads and agreeing that honestly?  Honestly, enough was enough, they’d done their bigger than needed bit and shrugging they retired to a hostelry to congratulate themselves over jugs of rough red wine.  Vive la France! Now to get on with the important things.  It’s entirely imagined and wholly affectionate, but I have a sneaky feeling there might be a bitty grain of truth in the notion.

Fireworks at the village fête de quinze août represent the fervour of the revolution

It should be noted that by now there was a fine chateau called les Poux, built in the early 17th Century which had hopped about between owners as such places often did at the effect of tussles and scurmishes but which, hold the thought,  had been snaffled by Huguenots early on.  By 1666 as London fried to cinders, its lethal combustion blamed for ever on an unfortunate baker who, in turn, protested his innocence for the rest of his life, yes, as London blazed, the present owners were already the incumbant lairds.  I find this significant.  It means that they escaped with their heads intact as the villagers, enraged and full of hope that the rich would no longer dictate to them, razed the tower that stood as a symbol of all things archaic and readied themselves for their brave new world.

The tree-lined avenue at Les Poux and a view back to the village from it’s land last winter

In the early 1820s that same sassy seigneur decided something should be done about, what must have been something of an eyesore in the middle of the village.  It was surely safe to pop his head above the parapet by this time since the Republic had been abolished in 1804 in the run up to Napoleon declaring himself Emperor.  This is not a French history lesson but suffice to say we are, at present, languishing in the fifth Republic of France and that 1824, which is credited as the year this chap decided it was safe to rebuild, was nestled neatly between the first and second.   I rather think he thanked God himself for the fact that he still had a head.  I think this not because I am harboring pious thoughts but rather because what he did, was to order the building you see now, but not as a house.  Instead he created a hospice.  Nursing nuns were installed to tend to the sick of the parish and to debilitated nuns from their Mother Priory in Aurillac which lies about 25 km North East of Marcolès and was, and still is, the most important town in the close area.  In fact these days it is the préfecture, county town if you will, of le Cantal. 

The priory still stands in Aurillac though these days it is occupied as apartments.  Gerbert of Aurillac became France’s first Pope in 946 AD declaring his papal name to be, rather splendidly, Sylvester II

The nuns worked gently and serenely, one hopes,  for the rest of the century administering to the needy.   In 1914 as yet another war, that war that was to end all war, which I still find the most tragic epithet of all time, seered and permanently scarred the   fields of Northern France, they departed.  I have much research still to do, but I imagine that, skilled as they were, they were summoned to tend the wounded and maimed boys despatched as cannon fodder from France and around the globe.  The building became empty and silent.

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In 1917 another bevy of revolutionaries, this time in Russia unleashed hellfire on the Czar and aristocracy.  They overthrew their own feudal rulers and a chaotic bloodbath ensued.  That is the nature of revolution. Sitting and intellectualizing its manner and outcome is fine and dandy but the reality will take it’s own messy course peppered with unknowns and unthought ofs. Some years earlier the daughter of  the Chateau les Poux had been dispatched to Russia to be governess to an unfeasibly rich family.  She loved her Russian life, took to it like a little French duckling to water and had no intention of ever returning to the middle of no-where-land to pass her days as a spinster.  That French was the first language of high-born Russians at the time and that all things French were considered to be the most elegant and sort after of treasures amongst the wealthy, explains why she would have been an appealing appendage to the family she served.  It was actually very common for well-educated desmoiselles who had been unsuccessful in securing a husband, leaving all around them scratching their heads and wondering what on earth to DO with such an embarrassment,  to be floated discretely off to Russia to live the fine life as an educator of the children in that strange limbo that governesses inhabited – something between family member and servant.  1917 therefore must have come as a colossal blow to her …. the family would necessarily have packed hastily and in their own chaos pointed her back towards France on the turn of a sixpence.  All fine and dandy.  Except of course France was at bloody and terrible war.  Take a moment to imagine what her journey might have been like over sea, overland and eventually, in heaven knows what state, returning to the familial home in far-flung,  and blissfully erased from her mind, southern France.

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What we do know is that she turned up at Les Poux and was soon installed in the now empty Maison Carrée as it afterwards became known.  There are still people who remember her.  She habitually wore long, rather old fashioned clothes complete with astrokhan or fur-trimmed coat sweeping the floor, her unusual height exentuated by a tall velvet or fur toque depending on the season.  She was a forbidding woman by all accounts and insisted on speaking Russian even though no-one understood a word she was saying.  I rather fancy that when this apperition turned up at the bucolic chateau, her sister-in-law ordered her husband to get rid of her, and that is why he cunningly requisitioned the house for her, given it was conveniently empty of nuns.  Wholly unsurprising that she was what the French call un peu spécial,  which translates as odd, weird or barking mad depending on context.  Poor love, she was sent to Russia, fell in love with the place and who knows, maybe with a beau too, only to have to rudely flee for her life back to a place that was less than welcoming and which by then had little to do with who she had evolved into.  I have a huge fascination with her, not least because I too, am frequently the lankiest bird in plain site  and am, undeniably foreign.  Not forgetting odd.   If the toque fits, I’m happy to wear it ….

Our not-Russian Russian lady  lived in the house til her death, around the time that I was born, when it was inherited by a woman, widowed or divorced, no-one can remember which, and which fact I find quite charmingly indicative of the lack of busybodiness that is part of the fabric of being French.  But whichever had rendered her alone she had two daughters and was, in some way yet to be discovered, related to those pesky poux. On her death the house was sold to the aberration of a man who preceded us in tenure, his wife and their two daughters.  Therefore, since the destruction of the tower and it’s rebirth in 1824, my husband is only the second man to have resided there.  I am comfortable that, wherever he registers on the eccentricity richter scale and which I am far too decorus to have an opinion on,   he is also the only vaguely sane man ever to have lived in the building since the Revolution of 1789.

Finally Cast your minds back to the early 17th century.  I mentioned the Huguenots.  I have spoken before about my father-in-law, cheese guru and eccentric delight.  His name was Patrick Rance.  Therefore my name, since he was my father-in-law was also Rance at that time.   In fact, had I not chosen to revert to my maiden name after that husband and I terminated our matrimonial bond, I would have been Mme Rance at the time I first set foot in Marcolès. The name is Huguenot.  It derives from de Rance, a family of that provenance who lived in southern France.  The river that Marcolès is built above is called la Rance.  Sometimes, things just feel as though they are meant to be …..

PS:  The quote is Alan Bennett from his glorious play ‘The History Boys’ :

“The best moments in reading are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things – which you had thought special and particular to you.  Now here it is, set down by someone else, a  person you have never met, someone who is long dead.  And it is as if a hand has come out and taken yours.”

Discovering the history of this place feels exactly like that.  Even though it is not written in the conventional sense, so much of it is being pieced together from scraps of records and jumbles of recollections often told by extremely old people, we feel led towards it by the hand.  And the hand undeniably belongs to la Maison Carrée

I want to be alone

Of all the surprises blithely thrown in my path in le Cantal, one of the most profound is le Monastère Orthodoxe Znaménié.  The mountains and plateau Cézallier are France at her deepest and most hidden.  These days entirely agricultural, lightly peppered with tiny villages and  the odd slumbering ghost town clinging vainly to a long forgotten once-upon-a-past prosperity, the hills sweep rather than peak up to around 1400 metres (around 4,600 feet).  Not the highest and not the  alpiest, pretty, school-child picturey of mountains, they are nevertheless uncompromising and can quickly turn from humble to harsh.  Open to the elements, the snows stick around many a year into May.  Fog and mist swirl and swathe often and disorientate rapidly.  And it boasts some of the stormiest and most petulant weather  in Western Europe with a positively rude statistic for lightning.  It takes a particular sort of personality to thrive in the elements that are randomly chucked about here.

Into this landscape in 1988 wandered a murmur of Nuns desperately seeking solitude and a place that nurtured their meditational, peaceful lifestyle.  They set about converting a barn into a Monastery.  Yes, I too would say convent but they insist it is a Monastery and I have never knowingly tangled with a Nun and shan’t change that habit now.  Monastery then.  They spent 6 years converting the barn into their vision.  With their own hands and with the help of benificent neighbours.  Most of the work, I am assured by the locals was done by the nuns and to be frank it takes my breath away.  They based their vision on the Monasteries on Mount Athos in Greece.  I have seen those gleaming immense edifices from a bobbing boat on an azure sea.  I am a woman and am not allowed to set foot on the Athos Peninsular.  Neither, despite their pious status, would these nuns.  Men who are not of the specific cloth worn by the Russian or Greek Orthodox Churches have to request a formal invitation and it typically takes many years presumably in the vague hope that the aforementioned non-sacred men will get bored and go about their secular business and not further bother the mysterious monkdoms.  I have been fascinated and a little obsessed with the notion of what actually goes on there for years.  Ever since I visited the trident shaped headlands on my big fat Greek holidays several years ago.  As a result my delight at finding a tiny replica on my doorstep was practically fizz-banging like my own private lightning storm.  What I learned about these women (whom I literally stumbled upon one fine Spring day about two years ago) was that they do everything that they can, themselves.  That they ask for the most minimal of help.  That they grow most of what they eat themselves which is by no means easy at 1200 metres altitude, that they keep bees and that they sell small amounts of bee products, jams and other produce to raise the necessary cash to pay for the things they absolutely can’t do themselves.  A fellow from whom we considered buying a house, widowed and wanting to move away from the place he had shared with his true love, told me that the dentist in the local town treats the nuns free of charge and that the state of their teeth is quite deplorable.  They don’t run to colgate and dental floss on their tiny budget.  Solitary they are.  Solitary and selfish to the extent that they have dropped out of society in order to spend their days in contemplation, meditation and prayer.  But harmless.  Not effecting anyone bady.  If you would like to visit, you can on certain days.  Free of charge.

Here in Grenoble there is a problem with homelessness (les sans abris).  It is a problem replicated across France and beyond, certainly to my own country of birth.  It is a cause close to my heart.  I have been within the most uncomfortably close sight of my own prospective homelessness with three small children and a baby in my life.  I believe it is a fundemental human right to know where you are going to lay your head at night and that the place should not be under a cardboard quilt and the cold blanket of starlight. In this city we have an excellent charitable network that tries to ensure the right help is delivered to the people who need it.  I have put my name on the list to volunteer to help but so far I have not been needed.  There are many willing supporters who go out with food, blankets, clothing and a compassionate ear.  The aim is to get all those suffering on the streets into accommodation.  We have an extremely liberal mayor.  It is high on his agenda.

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Enter the dragon.  The dragon in this case has foul breath and speaks with forked tongue.  Les faux 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.

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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.

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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.

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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 ….

A hungry dog believes in nothing but meat

Built by an enlightened reformist …. sorry?  Say that again!  You can’t seriously be saying that this place was built by an enlightened reformist?  Yup!  It is part of the Peterhof – Peter the Great’s Summer Palace which in modern terms is about an hour from the centre of St Petersburg (as the architect of its conception, birth and building modestly called it  and it remained until being renamed Leningrad and abruptly returned to its original name after Glasnost in the late 1980s).  St Petersburg was the icing on the bun of Peter’s vision.  He felled forests and built it as ‘The Venice of The North’ as a celebration of his victory in the war against Sweden.  I have noted before that you would if you could.  I’m honest enough to admit that I might ….

When I was raising my daughters I used to challenge them regularly when they asked for something they ‘needed’.  I used to ask them what they really and actually did need?  Mean wicked mother that I was, I started to gently confront them when they were about 3 years old.  Because from where I’m sitting what I really NEED is little.  I need enough food to fill my belly and no more.  I need shelter.  It can be as simple as you like but would ideally keep me warm in winter and cool in summer and would clearly vary according the climate I live in.  My body is my greatest gift and to have it functioning fully is preferable.  At the moment I have a rickety leg as a result of a foolish fall 4 weeks ago and I am learning how frustrating it is to NOT be able to move fluidly if at all.  Clothes on my back, shoes on my feet are probably a need.  And enough money to buy what I can’t grow or make myself.  Those are needs.  The rest – the car, the travel, the extensive wardrobe, the TV, the wireless, the CDs, the phone, the IT paraphenalia etcetera etcetera ad tedium – those are wants.  And I think it is extremely important to do an audit from time to time and remember what the difference is.  Call it a sanity check – call it a ticket to self-righteousness but I do believe it’s important.  Peter, THAT Great Peter, you see thought that this extraordinarily extravagent building (which is just a tiny wing  of one of his Palaces) was needed … I’d say it’s the icing on the cake, le cerise sur le gateau, the cherry on top which is why I’m having this little moment of pondering cherries because it happens to be the weekly photo challenge this week ‘The Cherry On Top’ and here you can see the rest of the entries, all wonderfully creative and worthy.

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PS:  The title – Chekhov’s ‘The Cherry Orchard’ (I would, wouldn’t I?) – one young intellectual (Pishtchik) to another (Trophimof) when talking of borrowing money  notes that just as all he can think of are bank balances and interest rates a hungry dog thinks of nothing but meat, a metaphor for single mindedness born of discontent … in this epoch the Chekhov generation of intellectuals were exchanging earnest views which led to  the discontent that in turn gave birth to  the Revolution of 1917 … I think we might do well to learn from that – after all that revolution led to a system of government that most in the ‘modern’ world believe to be unworkable.  It is also perhaps worth noting, given that the Cherry on the top of the photo for me is the modern Russian flag a-fluttering in front of the ludicrous affectation of the supposedly enlightened Peter, that the US, the UK and France all seem to be craving strong Government whilst simultaneously being afeared of the strong arm of Putin …. perhaps a return to understanding what we need as opposed to what we want is required.  Perhaps.

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

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

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

‘What shall I cover the upstairs walls with?’ 

‘How about floor, old chap ..?’

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

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

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

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

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

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

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

He was forced to acknowledge her figure to be light and pleasing

When asked to produce something that says ‘symmetry’ I instantly struggle because, like Michael York who once remarked that his fortune was made when he broke his nose as an adolescent, his face otherwise having been too perfect to be handsome, I rather shy away from the precision implied by symmetry.  But the Fountain of Eve (she’s standing calmly at it’s centre looking a little manly to be frank) in the Peterhof Palace Gardens in St Petersburg, has a glorious symmetry to it and the light catching the slender sprays of water makes me think of a glistening crown for Neptune.  And the quote?  Mr Darcy contemplating Elizabeth Bennett whom he has mentally picked to pieces and found in her every fault imaginable is forced to admit to self that despite the lack of symmetry to her form she is pretty damn gorgeous.  I rest my case.

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PS:  All the other interpretations of Symmetry for the Daily Press Photo Challenge are here

 

Angles are attitudes

Angular is the title of The Daily Post Weekly Photo Challenge this week.   My picture was taken in Red Square, Moscow during the run up to the Victory Day Parade and I love the angles the scaffolding and the men’s bodies produce.  It screams strength to me and that was the defining word of the moment for Russia and her leaders.

 

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PS: It was Frank Sinatra who wisely advised ‘Cock your hat … angles are attitudes’

From Russia With Love, Part 14: My fate is to see everything and take it so much to heart

The full sentence in the title is ‘And why is it, thought Lara, that my fate is to see everything and take it so much to heart?’  Pasternak’s Lara, of course in Dr Zhivago.  My father first saw David Lean’s masterpiece film of the book that he had read some time before, in a tiny cinema in Andermatt (Swiss Alps) in February 1966.  He reported that his nose and his toes were cold throughout.  He was wearing gloves and a bobble hat.  I was only 5 at the time so I didn’t see it until much later in the comfort of our drawing room and was I captivated.  The book I read soon after.  The story set the bar for the Russia that I wanted to find.  The politics, the literature, the love, the soul.  I waited what, had I been told I must, at the age I was then, would have seemed an impossible time to visit for the first time (for I am quite determined to go again and see far, far more of this vast and extraordinary place) and she didn’t disappoint.  Not even slightly.  I loved the people, as I knew I would. I love their relationship to art and dance and literature and science and intellect. It is quite captivating.  Their frankness, their ability to feel to the depths of their soul and not be ashamed of feeling so.  To be able to laugh and cry willingly. It is quite beautiful and at odds with the image of the stony faced, ice-eyed KGB torturer of cliché.  We went and we scratched the surface and we returned home a little changed. As you always should be when you have seen something and taken it to heart.

Here are my best bits – each one a character in the little story of my stay:

 

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And some of me enjoying my favourite bits:

 

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Za zdorovje!

Za zdorovje!

 

PS:  At lunch in the summer with local friends back home, we were assaulted with a barrage of the most appalling and misinformed propaganda gleaned from stories on the internet.  Drivel it all was but the venom with which it was thrown at us left us breathless with rage.  Politics is politics the world over and the globe is an increasingly small place but to tar a population with a filthy brush based on no more that what you have read is quite quite wrong.  In any language.

 

From Russia with Love part 12a: But Baby Its Cold Out There ….

You may remember that we spent some time in Moscow and St Petersburg earlier this year and this is the penultimate part of the story.  Part 12a because I just can’t rid myself of silly supersticions and I am wholly triskaidekaphobic (that’s afraid of 13s before you look it up).  Part 14 will follow hot on its heels and then my first Russian odyssey will be neatly parcelled off.  The tardy nature of this last but one is not entirely due to inefficiency or laziness.  I felt that my timing needed to be a teeny bit diplomatic since, as will be revealed, some might have felt it inflammatory had I posted it earlier.  They may still but I can’t help that.

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You might also remember that we were in Moscow for the May Day celebrations and that I noted these are not in any way a show of military force as they had been under the old guard but rather a celebration of the worker and an opportunity for demonstrators to demonstrate about whatever they feel they need to demonstrate in Red Square.  However, May 9th (Victory Day) is another matter and we were priviliged to watch several rehearsals for the Military Parade as it processed past our hotel in readiness for what, as it transpired, eclipsed the parades of recent years.

That Mr Putin used the opportunity to demonstrate his country’s strength and to leave the world in no doubt of how strong she is was not a small surprise given the caning he and Russia were, at that moment, taking on the world stage.  A stage full of those who will always throw a rock when facing a glass house.  Those who will invade and interfere at the drop of their own hat but who flew into a frenzy of screeching disapproval when The Bear roared.  It seemed to me that many had not even looked at the facts nor examined the history books.  The invasion and annexing of Crimea was inevitable.  It should have been included in Russia when the USSR was broken up but had been parcelled into Ukraine in 1954 because Mr Khrushchev was Ukrainian.  That Ukraine has been a sorry and angry mess for 20 years is surely an unmissable fact.  I try to be Apolitical on this blog but surely reason dictates that what Russia did was not more nor less than her Cold War foe the United States of America has done on a regular basis whilst The Bear slept.  And why on earth does it have to naturally extrapolate that this means that Russia is set to take over the world?  Really?  Nonsense.  I believe it is blather and nonsense.

So we watched the immense cavalcade of tanks and armoured vehicles rehearse the route that went past our hotel more than once.  No one stopped us from taking pictures.  The police were happy for us to stand and watch and many did – both citizens and visitors stopped to enjoy the free floor show.

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On our last morning we went shopping for souvenirs.  It was a challenging journey because Red Square and its surrounds were entirely closed off and Police guarded every attempt to exit the Metro within hundreds of yards.  It was May 9th.  After a convoluted agility test in Metro hopping we managed to find Old Arbat the street which Sergey (he of the Dukely perfect English) had recommended.  It should be noted that the day before we had gone to Izmailovsky Market where you will find the best bargains but sadly May is too early in the year and the market was no-where to be seen … we strolled in a ghost park where the mothballed fairground was just being unwrapped and not even the kiosk was open for business … the birds and squirrels, eager for a treat were disappointed.  Sergey had also recommended a particular shop so we walked past all other possibilities (and this is the Piccadilly Circus of Moscow in that it is tourist nick-nack central) and headed purposefully into the shop of the name he had carefully written on a piece of paper the night before at dinner.  It quickly became apparent that Sergey has never in his life set foot inside a souvenir shop in his city, let alone this two floored monstrosity.  In fairness that is hardly surprising – I don’t frequent the aforementioned purveyors of Beefeaters, Union Jacks and Royal Family memorabilia in London and wouldn’t know which were good, which bad and which horrid.  As we stepped through the door we were cast back in time to the communist regime and confronted with a shop assistant (all on her own in this monolyth of a store)  who had not caught up with Glasnost in any way or blinked at all in the sunlight of the new-born glossy Moscow that now surrounded her throwback-to-the-fifties-in-no-way-that-was-good shop.  No matter how cheerily we smiled her face didn’t flicker, her unblinking ice-cool exterior never once waivered with even a passing nod to warmth.  We beat a hasty retreat clutching a tiny bag of overpriced trinkets – naturally, being English, we were far to polite to just say good day and walk out.  As we walked back up the street passing another and another and another shop we decided to brave the last one and, baiting our collective breath for another freezing were greeted with two funny charming smiling young girls who made far more money than Iron Icicle Babushka from our visit.  Our purchases included a hat of fox-furred deliciousness which, I am shallow enough to admit, made my trip complete.  We strolled back to the Metro in bright warm sunshine, me insistent on wearing the hat and doing a little light modelling for the camera en route.

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Back at Pushkinskaya we hurried past the underground boutiques (there are scores of them – tiny little shops selling everything from dumplings to diva handbags) eager to grab brunch at our beloved Paul one last time.  A freezing wind bit us as we ascended the stairs and as we alighted on Tverskaya we were blown back by a blizzard.

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In 15 minutes Moscow had gone from summer to winter – it was like walking out of the wardrobe into Narnia except that there was no forest, no strange mythical creatures but rather tanks and armoured vehicles splendidly processing through the snow.  It was a fitting end to a fabulous stay.  Russia came in from the cold just over two decades ago.  The world put her back there in the Spring.  I say look in the mirror, Baby – you might not feel comfortable with the reflection.

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PS:  There is an old joke from The Second World War that Russian tanks have only one gear – forward and that they are fuelled by vodka – I have no idea if this is true but can state with authority that they work in all weathers ….

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From Russia With Love …. Part 12: Palaces for the People

If you walk everywhere in Moscow, however sunny the day or take a bus (trolley or otherwise) or a taxi all the time you are missing what in some ways is her biggest treat.  It’s not her oldest and its certainly not her most expensive (on your pocket) but come to Moscow and miss out on the Metro and in my view you have missed the heart of the city.  When we arrived we took the metro from Bellarusskaya to Tverskaya (though the stunningly beautiful Mayakovskaya is actually closer to our hotel it turns out) and I was literally stopped in my tracks.  Despite leaving home at 05:00, despite the normal wear and tear of a 4 hour flight, despite being overwhelmed by trying to dredge the grey cells for some grain of the Russian I had learned all those years ago in school, the Russian I had read I instantly woke up and, I am sure, gawped like a simpleton at that first station.  Talking to Sergey we quickly understood that this was not unique.  In fact there are multiple stunning stations in Moscow.  A little history research revealed that work commenced in 1934 on the first line (Red of course) followed by Dark Blue, Dark Green and Brown (the circle or ring line as it is ubiquetously known).  All the lines have proper names but are generally coloquially referred to by their colour. They are like underground palaces with beautiful embellisment – here stained glass, there mosaics, there again stucco but look again and you see that these artworks are homages to the workers. They celebrate soldiers and sailors and airmen but also railworkers, guards, fieldworkers. The women are as revered as the men. Family is celebrated. They are, in my view works of exquisite beauty and further enhanced by their expansive nature – the tunnels wider than I, as a London Tube user these past several decades am used to by a factor of at least 3 or 4.

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These stations, this metro is vast.  It is deep, the escalators seem to go on and on and they are rapid, to cope with the 7-9million people who travel on the system every day.  The trains (lovely rather retro looking and practical rather than luxurious) flash into the stations every 2 minutes at peak times and the longest wait we had was maybe 4 minutes at midnight which seemed a long way north of reasonable.

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Like their ballet dancers, the Muscovite train drivers are point perfect.  Many platforms have yellow arrows which if you stand on one will absolutely guarantee that you are by a door when the train stops.  A male voice announces your arrival – the line, the station and immediately afterwards the next station, a female voice tells you when the train is departing, to mind the doors and where it is going next.  And do mind the doors – they are heavy and they slam shut – I would not risk a last minute jump onto a Moscow Metro as so many do on the London Tube.

I shan’t harp on as though I am an expert, my experience is simply that, my experience. I would urge you to go and see for yourself. But I will share with you my favourite vignette. We had alighted by mistake at Ploshchad Revolyutsii and were trying to make it look as though we intended to be there. Taking pictures of the stunning bronzes, Two Brains was well disguised. I was standing, obviously foreign and effecting nonchalance in the way that only makes you look more self-conscious when my attention was drawn by people walking and without stopping nor even hesitating as they passed a bronze of a watchman and his dog each one  polished the dogs nose. All of them. The very old, the middle aged, the young, the obviously well-heeled, the obviously less-so, every one stroked his nose. His very shiney nose from all that polishing. Then a father and his possibly 20 month old baby and babushka stopped. The infant wide eyed as first granny then daddy dutifully petted the dog. Then, held aloft, the child tentatively reached out, hands quivering, a look for half wonder-half terror in his young eyes he stroked the nose and then beamed and beamed and beamed as nothing tangible happened to him except that his daddy squozed him and nuzzled him and granny kissed him – because now he too will have the good luck that I have since discovered is imparted by this dog (or actually any one of four dogs all identical one on each platform and one each on either side of the main corridor). Did I stroke his nose?  What do you think?

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To me, and I have no documented evidence to bear this out, it is just my feeling having experienced these underground monoliths and read about their history, the metro was built, of course to ferry the workers, but as beauteous as can be so the workers were reminded as they went about their day that they were valued, celebrated, equal.  These were Palaces for the People.

 

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St Petersburg also has a stunning network of underground stations – smaller but still breathtaking.  Theirs, though have firmly closing doors on the platforms so that the trains are isolated until stationary.  A reflection on the number of bodies under trains according to one Muscovite friend.  I guess we will see the idea adopted across the world (as we have on the Jubilee Line in London) before too long.

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PS:  A rather welcome echo of the old-regime is that you can travel anywhere on the network for a single price (30 rubles which translates today to 50 British pence, 63 French centimes or 87 US cents) meaning that if you live in the cheaper suburbs and work in the centre you are not paying a larger chunk of your wages in travel than those who can afford to live in the more expensive middle.  Fair fares!

From Russia With Love …. Part 11: Nice weather for ducklings ….

The final week dawned drizzly, mizzly and dull.  I consider this to be a very good thing as you can so easily wear the rosey specs if you are in a place for the first time in warm sunshine or indeed just sunshine.  Dull skies alter the perspective.  I still love this city.  We are off to the lab.  Edward takes control.  We should know better by now.  On the metro, we change onto the dark blue line from dark green and I am confident that we need to go 4 stops.  After 3 I am herded unceremoniously off the train to alight into another uniquely gorgeous station, up the rapid escalator and into the drizzly mizzly outside where Edward declares we are in the wrong place.  We need to go another stop … bite thy tongue, I council self.  Edward, having exited the station,  has no ticket, we have three passes, we lend him one for the ride which he gleefully pats in his pocket and says ‘just enough rides left until I leave tomorrow’.  Two Brains had carefully calculated that between the three cards WE had just enough rides – we exchange silent laughter through the aether and bite our collective tongues again.

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Eventually we get to the lab and I am entranced by my tour.  One thing I absolutely love about scientists is their make do and mend attitide.  Of course, these high end boffins make shiney new discoveries but they do it using cast out stuff as well as hideously expensive and inexplicable machines.  I am away in my B-movie mad scientist imagination and it is bliss.  They showed me experiments along the way (which at the time I entirely understood, honestly but I don’t think I had better try and explain – sound, water, waves, vibration and all terribly clever) but the best bit, for me, was the second floor where they have saved equipment dating back to the 19th century and through to the revolution (1917) … these are beauteous things and stunningly crafted even if, like me, you don’t really understand what they do.  If you have never been to the Science Museum in Oxford (and to my shame despite living in and around the City most of my life, I didn’t know it existed until Two Brains, or HB2 as he shall now scientifically be known, took me there when we first met in 2012) you should a) visit if you are in Oxford and b) understand that much of what they have in this living, learning place, this University is better than anything you will see in Oxford.  Sergey, who is finding his passion in teaching told us that they use the items when teaching because the size of old-school items makes it easy for the students to see from anywhere in the lecture halls what is being demonstrated.  He lit up and it was intoxicating … there is nothing better than an explanation from a passionate person.  Look closely at one glass piece and you can see a cross engraved in the glass …. ‘this certainly pre-dates 1917’ said Sergey.

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Given that the main cathedral (Of Christ The Saviour) was a swimming pool under the Communist regime, I guess that would be a certainty!  The rebuilt cathedral, incidentally (the 19th Century original having been destroyed in 1931) is the highest Orthodox Church in the world and was constructed in the 1990s.  It is a bling eye-catcher.

After my tour, Anna (Sergey’s wife) took me across the street to the Novodevichy Monastery.  Built in 1524 the name means Young Maidens monastery (which is a tad confusing) and was named such to avoid confusion with the Old Maidens monastery within the walls of the Kremlin Palace … the mind boggles.

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We didn’t go in.  Just walked (in the now driving rain) in the park to the front which runs along the river.  Along the way I met some ducks.  Bronze ducks.  The exact same ducks I had encountered (or rather hunted down as the one thing I HAD to see) in Boston.  Those ducks are an homage to the delightful childrens book ‘Make Way for Ducklings’ by Robert McCloskey which I read and read to the girls when they were small.  These ducks were given to Raisa Gorbachev by Barbara Bush in 1991 when they were both first ladies as a symbollic gesture when the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty was being agreed.   I can report that they are absolutely identical and that I was thrilled to meet them.  Anna took a photo of me with the ducks – typically Russian and very direct she did not conceal her amusement at my moment of pure tourist indulgence.   I rather love the fact that a childrens book had a role in those historic negotiations.  The book, incidentally was published in 1941 – the year Russia joined the allies in fighting in WW2.

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Later, we went for dinner with Sergey, Yury and Edward.  The chosen venue was a ‘pub’ with more draft beers than I’ve had hot dinners.  I had white wine.  We ate Kaspian Pelmeni – plumptious little dumplings stuffed with salmon and sturgeon … absolutely delicious but it was the floor show that shone.  The second rehearsal for Victory Day had the massed tanks and armoured vehicles parading down Tverskaya in daylight this time … but you will have to wait for my report which is a blog unto itself.

PS:  It rained a little on the walk back to the hotel but I shunned the umbrella weilded by Edward.  I am scarred by an umbrella related incident many years ago in Sloane Street when using my brolly as a prop to lean in my coolest pose whilst waiting for a bus, it snapped and I was left flat on my face on the pavement which was NOT the look I was trying to achieve as a sleek girl about town.  Not to be deterred, Edward offered me the umbrella lest it should rain the last few days of my stay.  How kind, I thought.  He burst the bubble with his customary honesty ‘I have not got room in my case for it’ ….