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Posts tagged ‘Aurillac’

In chaos there is fertility

At various points in my life I have described myself as a ‘cat herder’.  Herding cats being, if you are idle enough to dwell on the issue, a thankless and almost impossible task.  At times it has been part of my job and at other times it has been part of my role as a mummy and surrogate mummy to whoever was clinging to whichever of my children (and there were usually multiple clutches of them) at that particular time.  I find that a combination of drill Sergeant Major and free-wheeling hippy chicky does the trick a treat.

In the summer of 2015 I was asked to reprise this role – to give a one off performance of ‘The Cat Herder’ to an audience of lightning fanciers and experts and interested amateurs from all over the world in Aurillac.  Aurillac is the capital (or prefecture) of Cantal and is known throughout France as the coldest town in the country.  This is because the weather girls and boys on all channels and in the newspapers always have the lowest temperature on any day listed as Aurillac so therefore it must be true … hold that thought.

The meeting was to last two days and HB2 and I plus The essential Bean arrived the night before and checked into our dog friendly hotel.  Not an issue since so many hotels are dog friendly in France and in fact most cafés and restaurants bat not the merest graceful eyelash at the dog dining with you.  Particularly tiny dogs like ours.   This makes The Bean  fully portable and no hindrance to our lives whatsoever.  Since we were eating en masse with the entire posse of delegates and organisers we left her snuggled in her basket dreaming of Bean things and enjoyed our evening immensely.

The following day I hit the ground hell for leather, checking everyone in, making sure those that hadn’t paid in full before the event opened their moth-eaten wallets and placed their owings in my ultra-efficient paw, setting up the refreshments and generally acting the part of the elegant swan to perfection.  Swans, we know, paddle frantically but invisibly and glide their impeccable glide with an unparalleled serenity.  Hold that thought too.

The fly in the ointment was the fact that this gleaming conference facility, the pride of Aurillac and contained in their Centre de Congrès had a large and prominent no dogs sign – one of those with an emphatic diagonal line through the offending pooch.  We asked if they really meant it.  For example most of the newly refurbished small airports in France have these signs but you will find there are hounds and houndettes strolling around unpeturbed in all of them – in fact The Bean is entranced with airports in France because she tends to be fêted royally by passengers, crews and sundry workers alike which she considers, quite understandably, is her right.   They did mean it.  They really, really did mean it so we had no choice but to leave her in the hotel with me running up and down stairs at frequent intervals and hightailing it to our staying quarters to air her.  Believe me this was not the plan – worrying about the dog whilst herding all these cats was unequivocally NOT the plan.     Unfortunately the might of Two Brains’ intellect was one of the star attractions of the show so he was required to sit and look brilliant and wise throughout all the presentations and ask pithy questions in English and French of the presenters.  Me, I’m just the tea girl.  I know my place.  Cast your mind back a couple of paragraphs.  Aurillac is the coldest place in France so leaving The Bean in the hotel room  was no more than a mere inconvenience, surely.  Except that it isn’t at all cold (well in winter it can be pretty nippy, downright chilly and even positively freezeling because it is in the mountains) … in fact the daytime temperature those two days hit 45°C (thats 113°F).  So quite warm.  Not thermal underwear weather.  Not knitted mittens weather.  Not even nylons weather.  And certainly not weather to have a dog cooped up anywhere and mostly not in a hotel room which unlike the conference facility did not boast even a ceiling fan, let alone air conditioning.  I have seldom passed such an anxious time.  We got through it, of course we did.  I found a little square round the corner with nice shady trees and took her to sit (and be fêted by sundry locals) every hour and I kept her watered.  I think brittle would be the best word to describe me as I herded those cats to perfection for hours on end back and forth to the restaurant for lunch and dinner, dolling out the refreshments which they seemed to destroy like a plague of locusts in minutes flat at every break and all the while smiling my rapturous smile, inclining my head graciously, gliding my silky glide, giving of my famed shimmy and schmooze and wishing I was somewhere else entirely.

The end of the conference, the end of the longest two days of my entire life,  was marked with a gala reception and the guest of honour was the fourth most important man in France.  The Mayor of Aurillac who has a particular interest in Science was also on the guest list.  And of course all the delegates from all over the world.  They were each presented with a lovely box of Cantalien goodies and the food laid out on the long tables looked achingly beautiful – salver after salver of exquisite bite-sized confections savoury and sweet, and the champagne on ice waiting to be poured by the equally exquisite and immaculately uniformed team of young servers their beatific faces never flickering from that porcelain expression that sits between inscrutable and the merest flicker of a smile and had clearly been drilled into them by the rather  forebidding and hawk-like bloke in charge.  I don’t think he had ever smiled.  I don’t think he actually had ever wanted to smile, for smiling surely would be a foolish fripperie and not something to waste ones life on when one had important functions to preside over and guests to skillfully intimidate if they fell short of ones exacting and giddyingly high standards – none shall pass but the most hallowed and they shall be obsequiously attended to and with aplomb so that all the lesser mortals need only look on and dream that they too might one day be so elevated.

We waited and we waited and we waited.  The tired delegates, most of whom were not French did not understand why we waited.  And to be frank neither did I.  I asked the hawk-eyed witherer and I swear he dessicated me on the spot with the most epically condescending yet oh so fleeting glare of my entire life and, lips barely flickering as he murmured his patronising finest, he explained that in France you cannot start proceedings until the guest of honour arrives.  And the guest of honour was the fourth most important man in France.  I went wearily downstairs with Ferdinand (a rather goat-like German who had been part of the organising team for reasons that escape me).  Ferdinand is a ladies man.  He flirted tirelessly and I ignored him tiredly.  Every so often I went upstairs to report that I had nothing to report.  We waited and we waited and we waited and, if I may be candid the heat, the lack of food (I had been serving refreshments, not eating them for that is  the Cat Herders remit) and possibly dehydration which would have certainly been rectified with a glass of bubbly but the bubbles couldn’t be popped without the all important presence of the fourth most important man in France.  I became silently hysterical and not a little delirious.  And then I spotted him.  A man on a bike weaving his purposeful way towards the building.  He dismounted and removed his bicycle clips placing them in the breast pocket of his, admittedly rather elegant whisper grey shirt and chained his bike carefully to the front of the building and smoothed down his undoubtedly snazzy designer black jeans.  I usually pride myself on picking up on clues.  This day my inner Marple had abandoned me – presumably a victim of evaporation brought on by the heat.  He entered the building.  I spoke up.  I admit I shouldn’t have.  Hindsight is not wonderful.  It is painfully embarrassing.  I asked him, with a little twinkle of irony in my tone if he might be the fourth most important man in France.  No, he replied.  I’m the mayor of Aurillac.  The ground failed to swallow me up and Ferdinand who up to that point had been an irritant became my hero as he swept the aforementioned and understandably disgruntled mayor up and took him up the equally sweeping staircase.  Minutes later Ferdinand reappeared and as if by magic, so did the enormous black car bearing two of  the most glamourous and chic women I have EVER seen in my life and the fourth most important man in France.   I remained stoically silent.  I may never learn but I seldom repeat the same mistake in the same evening.  Seldom I said.  Not never.  Fortunately this was a seldom night.  Ferdinand greeted the VIP and his entourage and then introduced me ‘this is Mme B – she’s the head  of diplomacy for the organisation’ …. levity has never been more welcome.

And don’t ask me who this fellow was … I never discovered.   He’s the fourth most important man in France – why on earth would I need to know more than that …. after all I’m just the Cat Herder and I know my place.

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

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The compulsary PS:  You might be wondering given the story above why I have picked this picture of random rocks.  I have a logic.  The picture is of a Chaos Basaltique in Cantal …. the area is volcanic and strewn with reminders of that heritage in such formations which are left over when the basalt columns known coloquially as ‘Organ Pipes’ collapse and fling their broken pieces seemingly randomly in rivers of brittle rock.   I love stumbling on them.  This one is at Landeyrat and was the high spot of a most enraging hike two years ago.

The title comes from Anaïs Nin …. it appears in one of her umpteen journals – she was prolific, writing every day in volume after volume from girlhood until her death.   The chaos in the picture is fertile with plants and lichen and mosses so her words seem to fit nicely.  And I happen to agree with her … chaos can be fertile – as a seasoned Cat Herder, I should know.

Later, Osyth added this bonus in response to a question from a reader as to what a Cat Herder actually is:

Only those who attempt the absurd

The first time I saw this place, I was on honeymoon three years ago (or thereabouts).  The place my husband had chosen for this special moment is owned by the most delightful of men.

A self-proclaimed Royalist, he is married to a psychiatrist who practices her head shrinking in Marseilles some 5 hours south-east of his bijou chateau in Aurillac.  They speak every day, and lovingly, by phone and sometimes he goes to see her and sometimes she comes to see him.  At the time we had no concept that the next 2 ½ years would see us in the same tub.  The mere notion would have seemed absurd.

 A man of short stature and with magnificent, almost Dali-esque, waxed moustachios he is quite clearly Hercules Poirot’s long-lost, should be discovered twin, separated at birth.  He is positively a mine of information, a historian and a trawler of knowledge with that sponge-like ability to soak up every last teeny drop.  Rather like a human hoover, he vacuums up all the   specks of material in his path, then assimilates them, files them according to relevance in the boggling laberynth that is a mind and brings them forth at the precise moment of crowning relevance.  And with quiet aplomb.   Like nurturing a perfect fruit to pluck and present it at it’s precise moment of optimum ripeness.  His great joy, therefore, apart from providing an impeccable interlude for his guests, cooking delicious local recipes from local ingredients and sharing, free of charge the contents of his not insignificant cellar, is to impart tips and advice and to guide his guests to even greater enjoyment of what is  already a perfect break.  Never to debate or undermine, he coaxes your holiday spirit out of hiding, assesses it with the expert eye of the head of a great household assessing the crystal and silver and porcelain laid for a banquet and only then makes suggestions which are as carefully and thoughtfully shared as a glorious vintage from a gleaming decanter and your breath baits as you wait for the treasure to be revealed.  For treasure it will surely be.  He is quite one of the finest  souls I have ever encountered in a lifetime studded with fine souls.   The most absurd thing, or perhaps the most sensible, is that he does not advertise his wares at all on the interweb … like the wild mushrooms he served to us in a perfectly executed sauce, you have to know where to seek him and sometimes I wonder if we dreamed him into being in our collective-romantic.

On our second morning he suggested we visit Rocamadour.  It is just over the border in the Lot departement.  Although it attracts tourists like a swarm of bees to a pollen filled flower-garden I would recommend anyone in the faintest locale to go.  It quite literally is built onto the rock and cleaves and clings to it with majestic defiance.   That it is medieval and that they managed to believe and then achieve this is beyond my puny imagination ….

Since that entrancing start to our married life, I have been back to Rocamadour just once with my eldest daughter on a blistering hot July day when even the rocks seemed to be clammy with salt perspiration rather than the usual cooling dampness of vast stones.  I took this picture that day and it seems to fit the weekly photo challenge this week titled ‘Look Up’ and as ever you will find all the other laudable entries here.

The staircase screams to me of Escher and so I snipped him for my title:

‘Only those who attempt the absurd will achieve the impossible.  I think it’s in my basement – I’ll go upstairs and check’ – M.C Escher

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PS:  Last year we revisited the chateau we had stayed in for those first enchanted days of our marriage, armed with a book.  It was a copy of my late and always lamented father-in-laws opus‘The French Cheese Book’ because our host had lit up at the unimagined absurdity of an Englishman taking the time to journey throughout France discovering  well in excess of 700 cheeses, but more than that to have spoken to multitudes of makers,  farmers,  dairy owners, researched the history of the terroirs, their people and their production and produced a work of such magnitude about FRENCH cheese one of which,  by the way is a delectable little chêvre disc made in Rocamadour.  These two men come in many ways of a common mold and it seemed entirely reasonable to give him a copy of the book, inscribed with our thanks for making the first days of our married journey so magical.  He regarded it with the exact same reverence with which I look upon him.

Vendre dit vendredit: Part Three – The merit of all things consists in their difficulty

An occasionally regular series charting a seemingly endless search for the perfect maison familiale.  You can catch up on previous installments by typing Vendre dit into the search box if you are so inclined.

I have to take a deep breath and cast my musty mind back more than three years for this part three.  And there are, appropriately three parts as it turns out.

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The Mairie, Champs sur Tarentaine-Marchal

It was the beginning of Winter and we had flown from London for a fleeting visit to this place that had welded itself to our collective heart.  We had much to do.  We were to be interviewed by the Mayor of Champs sur Tarentaine to see if he would agree to marry us.  He did.  So we then booked lunch at the very nice restaurant just outside the village.  It was a lovely lunch, followed by an in depth discussion of the arrangements for our Wedding Feast.  To take place in the garden (under the pretty, rustic awnings if it was too cool or too sunny) and to consist of a wonderful array of food (mostly what Madame dictated since our English notions of Wedding Fayre where frightfully outré) with delicious wines aplenty and beautifully decorated tables.  We sat and chatted with our very good friends and discussed the invitations which she insisted on designing for us and he explained the etiquette of the vin d’honneur mariage at the Mairie immediately following the ceremony.  All was glowing rosily in our world.  And fired up with our joie de vivre and the sure knowledge that we were entirely unassailable in our love-bubble we rang an immobilier in Aurillac and asked if we might see a house he had on his books.  He was called Eric.

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We arrived at Eric’s office and Eric was no-where to be seen.  We took our seats and I glanced at my mobile.  A hysterical note from a daughter indicated that I needed to send her money.  I did this instantly and seemlessly on my iPhone and congratulated myself on my epic grasp of modern technology.  Whilst cursing the downside of raising children on ones own which is that when they are in need there is only one point on their compass.  We waited some more and eventually Eric surfaced.  During the wait, his glossy assistant had gleaned that we wanted somewhere with a decent patch of land but that it would be a maison secondaire so needed to be reasonably practical until we collectively retired.  She had punched this information emphatically into her computer and not for the first time in my life, I marvelled at how it can possibly be that some women are able to maintain a perfect manicure and type whilst I need never bother with polish unless chipped and distressed become nail haute couture.  We christened Eric, Eric the Fish on account of the Monty Python sketch in which Michael Palin wants to buy a licence for his pet fish, Eric and the shop-keeper is also called Eric.  He’s an halibut.  Eric lives with a dog called Eric and a cat called Eric.  And so it goes on.  Anyway Eric the Fish bid us follow him out of town to view the house.

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Now it should be noted that our friend Eric (not Eric the Fish) is a motor cycle cop.  In fact he is known as Eric Motard.  That means Eric the bike-cop.  Eric had assessed the house we were going to see with a single sentence – ‘I know that place … I often have a speed trap almost outside it’.  Eric is a hero.  Later, at our wedding all my daughter’s will fall in love with him and announce he is a French Bruce Willis.  Eric keeps tropical fish.

We sped out of town behind Eric the Fish.  Two Brains was tangibly agitated behind the wheel, convinced that we were going to meet Eric Motard and his speed gun at any moment.  Imagine the embarrassment.  Our Gendarme friend Philippe (you may recall that all our friends are called Philippe.  Except Eric) had the ultimate embarassment when he was stopped for speeding in his own village.  Twice.  At the time he was the station sergeant.  On a particularly nasty bend we spied the house and beyond it a layby into which Eric the Fish shimmy-ed adroitly somehow avoiding a speeding truck bearing down the road in the other direction.  We creeped and peeped, took a deep breath and our lives in our hands and turned across the road to a white-faced halt next to the immobilier.  He waved nonchalantly at the house and said there is a garage underneath but it would be madness to park in it given that this is a route nationale and  known for it’s accidents.  He didn’t seem to think this fact might in any way put us off.  We walked down the road, backs glued to the bank and staring death in the face.  We dutifully entered the house which was clearly a maison secondaire for a family with teenaged or young adult children who took advantage of the skiing just up the road at le Lioran.  The basement garage was full of snow boards and skis and it was all very sportif.  The house itself was an interesting patchwork of purples, puces, violent ocres and magentas interspersed with the occasional and presumably strategic accent piece in lime green or scarlet.  Not to my personal taste but châcun a son gout.  It has to be said that the views out over the valley were beyond magnificent notwithstanding the road between house and view.  But we explained to Eric le poisson that really we couldn’t live on such a fast highway, even if it was not our fixed abode.  That we have five young adult children and the idea of letting them stay, go into town for a night out and negotiate the road in high spirits was unbearable and that as nice as the elevated garden was you would need to have your mountain goat Boy Scout or Girl Guide badge to get up and down those steps in the dark.  He suggested we follow him back to his office to discuss.  We should have sneaked off into the yonder the other way but being polite and English we did as bidden.

He said he had two houses that were just the ticket.  No pictures of either because they were new on the market but we would be foolish to let the opportunity slip.  We went and had lunch in the town.  Aurillac is the prefecture or capitol of Cantal and very lovely …. small with only 28,000 population but beautifully formed and very artsy with  strong bias to music and in particular, jazz .  We chose a restaurant quite badly and managed to attract an extraordinarily surly waitress who told us the menu du jour was finished and then proceeded to serve it up to several tables who came in after us but what she did deign to serve us was very nice if twice the price.  It happens.

Back at Chez le Fish promptly at 2:15 we set off and I could not begin to tell you where we went.  It seemed to take an age but eventually we arrived in a tiny hamlet.  We entered a small, rather dark house midst an explanation that it came with about a hectare of land on which the owner kept a couple of goats a cow and some poultry.  And possibly a horse and donkey.  How you can have any misunderstanding over the latter, I silently pondered as we walked straight into the main piece to be greeted nervously by a stooped very elderly man standing pointedly poking a weak and clearly freshly laid fire.  ‘I did as you said’ he said to The Fish and to us ‘The fire makes the house much nicer. That’s what he told me’.  The Fish (who it should be noted looked rather uncomfortable and had some sort of coughing siezure as this nugget was being imparted) had clearly told him that if he lit the fire all of a sudden the house would take on fresh and beguiling personality and we would be possessed of a passion to buy it.  I’m surprised he hadn’t told the poor soul to bake a fresh loaf and grind some coffee beans as well. It was a sorry little place.  Jaded and neglected like it’s sweet old owner.  He told me he was a widower.  His wife had died a little while ago and he had continued as best he could (I don’t know how old he was but I would guess either side of eighty) but now all he wanted to do was move to Toulouse where his son and daughter were.  They were too busy to come and see him but if he could sell, he could move near them and then he would be happy.  I walked quietly round the house and said his wife had pretty things.  She did.  Very few but they were pretty.  He said he missed her still but it was time to move because he now struggled to cope and it was a long way for his daughter and son to come and see him.  And they were busy.  He told me this over and over as though by referencing them enough times he might magic them up.  If we’d had the money we would have bought the house then and there and driven him to Toulouse and found him a place where he could be warm and cosy.  Near to other elderly people and people that might deign to talk to him.  I was not convinced his daughter and son would have time to spend time with him  even if he was next door but maybe I surmise unjustly.  I felt hollow when we left because I knew we could not and would not buy it and I wished I hadn’t put him to the trouble of lighting his fire fruitlessly.  As I’m very afraid it will always be.

The Fish then escorted us to his other gem.  The most bizarre house I had ever been inside though now I know it is not at all out of the ordinary.  Being a beady eyed bird, I spotted instantly that this was a décès (deceased estate) the clue being in the assertively placed post-it notes in sundry lurid colours on all the furniture and fittings presumably being code for the various beneficiary’s spoils.  The house was positively cavernous.  It was reached by a path that a toddler could traverse in two steps.  In other words it fronted directly onto the road – it was in a small and rather disconcertingly quiet village.  It had a sort of brooding silence.  We imagined that the garden which was about an acre must all be to the rear.  It felt rather Kafkaesque inside.  Arrow straight corridors with several doors either side all opening onto seemingly identical rooms.  Square, wallpapered by a latterday lunatic and gloomy.  Obscurely it had two kitchens one on either side of the corridor.  Both completely kitted out identically to include twin past-their-sell-by and quite possibly extremely dangerous old cooker, huge chipped enamel sinks with rusting taps, ancient cupboards (not lovely antique cupboards you understand, more hoary unsalvagable cupboards)  bow fronted vintage refrigerators each big enough to store a body and formica topped metal table and chairs.  This mysterious arrangement was not explained and we were too polite to ask … We were not, however, too polite to ask to see the garden.  ‘Certainly’ said The Fish.  ‘Hop in your car and follow me’.  ‘No.  The garden.  We just wanted to see the garden.’  ‘Yes – it’s about a kilometre down the road.’  This was our first experience of a phenomena which is commonplace in France … terrain non attenant where you have land but it doesn’t join your house. Sometimes it’s in several different locations but none of them ajoin, let alone surround, your house.  I had visions of lovely leisurely lunches on a long table under the trees and wondered at the sheer logistics of planning such a meal in your two kitchens.  In fairness, the reception rooms though sombre would wake up and smile with some care and there was a sweet little parlour that would make a cosy office and there was  running water though it was unclear whether hot water was a consideration.  But no cellar which is odd in such a once grandiose place. And to take coffee in the garden would require a thermos flask and to take a glass of wine would require a cool-bag.  Or alternatively a footman in full livery, obviously, to push his trolley down the road and convince the invisible neighbours that the English really are all mad dogs.

PS:  When we returned to the restaurant that was catering for our wedding party less than a month before our big day Madame had never seen us before in her life and had no record nor recollection of taking the booking AND unfortunately was now catering for a bit of a do – another do taking the entire restaurant and garden and couldn’t possibly fit us in.  That she also lost the Mayor’s dinner booking for himself and several other frightfully important local dignitaries did nothing to salve the sore.  But that is another story ….

By the way, the title is Aramis to Athos and d’Artagnan in Dumas’ ‘The Three Musketeers’ because this is a story of three and I have always rather agreed with him. 

And another thing:  When I am writing stories of houses for sale I think it a matter of decency not to feature photos of the actual places.  Therefore, the pictures illustrating  each story are just that – illustrative.  All taken by me, of course.  However,  as it happens one of the buildings featured in Aurillac is for sale … it’s an ancient presbeterie and has a beautiful courtyard garden probably best suited to conversion as flats.  In case you were interested in a bit of light property development in le Cantal ….