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Posts tagged ‘auvergne’

Marcolès Monday (Coup de Cœur – Part Seven): Anyone Who Had A Heart

Surprise! Surprise! It’s Monday and I am keeping the promise I made a couple of weeks ago to devote each start of the week day to bringing you stories of our quite possibly never ending renovation project in le Cantal deep in la vraie France profonde. Until I moved to the US to spend the whole of 2016 this had been an occasional series chronicling the tale of the renovation of a former medieval watch-tower in southern France …..

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Actually, it’s no surprise because I do always keep my promises and I never ever say anything I don’t mean. Voilà! This tiny billet-doux is simply an introduction to the continued saga. For the rest of the week I will post a previous installment a day, bringing us neatly to next Monday when I can pick up the reins and relight the fire which I know must be burning with heated anticipation in your bellies at the thought of this cornucopia of delight even before the Christmas fun frolics and fantastic festival of over-indulgence really starts. Just call me a truly big-hearted girl as I scatter my glitter freely and seemingly without restraint.

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Rules of engagement …. this is NOT a renovation blog. Although I have renovated several old properties including an Art Deco flat in south west London, a 17th Century cottage with Georgian facade in Oxfordshire, a 19th century village shop, a Victorian farmhouse in South West Ireland and, my personal triumph, a 1950 ex-council house which I sold to a couple who were disappointed that I had replaced the windows, so convinced were they that they were buying a vintage farm cottage. Trust me the original metal cased local authority standard issue frames were not pretty and, have further faith, the Georgian-bar, double glazed lovelies were not only elegant but equally importantly stopped the rampant leakage of heat from every aperture. There is a crucial link between all those projects and the jobs I later undertook when running my own business helping others maximise the potential of their property for sale. I have worked always with budgets ranging from microscopic to frankly non-existent. So non-existent, in fact, were the finances of most of my clients that I failed to follow through on collecting my own fees. I felt their pain you see, when the sale of their home was prompted, as it so often is, by one of the fabled real estate ‘Three D’s’ – Divorce, Death, Debt. They smiled, I starved … it’s a theme in my life.

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The same funding method applies to our place in Southern France. It is a labour of love and sweat and pain and tears and virtually no money and so far we have been at it for more than three years. Apart from a pot of gold which is basically … well basically just a pot. Peer closely into this vessel and you will see cobwebs, dust, possibly even fossilized spiders and other unidentified creatures and once bobbish bits, but you will spy not so much as a farthing in hard cash and no flexible plastic friend either. Apart from this entirely useless and not even decorative receptacle, there is the issue of HB² – this is ‘The Husband with Two Brains. My husband for the avoidance of doubt. He and his brains are mostly to be found flitting all over the planet doing oversized brain things with astrophysics and radio-astronomy but he’s a rare sighting in France. Those who have experienced trying to undertake a project that then reveals itself to be an increasingly major spiraling upwards to a breathtakingly vast project, from afar with no budget to pay others, will surely sympathise. Of course, I am in France and originally and until this year the apartment we rented was 2 hours North of the house. Now I live in Grenoble and I am more like 6 or 7 hours East. That and the fact that there are things that I am simply not physcially strong enough to sensibly tackle. I’m always looking for sneaky tricks to make myself a littler slenderer but squished by falling masonory is a little extreme, I rather feel. It means that I only do the things I can do and presently I visit about once every 5 weeks. There is a reason for the cadence. If you are good and behave very very (and indeed very) well, I might be persuaded to share the logic.

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So here’s the nub. I’m not here to advise or pose as an expert. What I do is tell stories and the Marcolès stories are intended above all things to be entertaining. As you read the stories, you need to bear in mind that I am writing retrospectively … that we agreed to buy La Maison Carrée (The Square House) in 2013 but didn’t take ownership for a year and it was a further 9 months before we got the keys; that the house is considered the jewel of a very tiny and perfectly formed medieval ‘city’ due to its being the oldest building in town and that we consider ourselves custodians of it for our lifetime.. By the way, technically for reasons I may explain in a post it is a City not a Village despite having a head-count of less than 500 inhabitants. For us the town and their sensibilities are paramount. Is it fay to feel that we were meant to have this house? Crucially considering that we bought it even though it sits literally plumb centre of the cité when our natural habitat, given our collective inner hermit would be an uninhabited island or at the very least the middle of entirely no-where, high up in the elements where you feel nature and have no choice but to go with her …. I jest. Sort of. No really, I’m joking. I think. Actually, face facts, I am decidedly not joking.

I SO enjoy your comments and take gently delivered and kindly meant advice well and to heart so please do join in and spritz the commentary with your own wisdom and experience but don’t expect me to be the very brilliant Gill at Côte et Campagne who IS an expert and is renovating on a tiny to nonexistent budget and who, with the stoic, good-natured support of her partner Trev has achieved nothing short of a miracle of a rescue of a small village house. Gill is an artist by training and it shows, Trev has taught himself to be a true artisan with all things wood. Take a look …. they humble me. They also renovate and repurpose furniture and other things …. I dream of the day when I am ready to go into a buying spree of frenzied proportions in their shop. Be still my frantically beating heart.

And on that note … overcome with my own ability to create such gleaming lustre as I sprinkle my fairy dust and strive to make the world a shinier place, I will leave you to prepare yourselves for my bounteous gift of 6 episodes in 6 days of ‘Coup de Couer’ – the story of a couple driven by love, insanity and absolute and mostly unswerving certainty that it truly and really WILL be beautiful. Eventually.

A demain mes amies ….

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PS: The title is a Cilla Black Song ‘Anyone Who Had a Heart’ …. the aforementioned Gill will understand why I picked Cilla. Apart from the reason that must be hers to share, she (Gill, not the late and hugely lamented Cilla) and I share a notion that houses have spirits, souls if you will, and sometimes those pesky buildings are reluctant to cooperate – in fact sometimes they can be downright unhelpful and even entirely resistant to the tender efforts of well-meaning rescuers. Thoroughly stubborn and suspicious …. these are not love-affairs for the light-hearted, in fact sometimes one feels that the house would rather lie and decay into the ground than accept the attentions of it’s enthusiastically amorous new owners …. here’s Cilla at her finest as your bonus:

Anyone Who Hard A Heart

Anyone who ever loved, could look at me
And know that I love you
Anyone who ever dreamed, could look at me
And know I dream of you
Knowing I love you so
Anyone who had a heart
Would take me in his arms and love me, too
You couldn’t really have a heart and hurt me,
Like you hurt me and be so untrue
What am I to do

Every time you go away, I always say
This time it’s goodbye, dear
Loving you the way I do
I take you back, without you I’d die dear
Knowing I love you so
Anyone who had a heart
Would take me in his arms and love me, too
You couldn’t really have a heart and hurt me,
Like you hurt me and be so untrue
What am I to do

Knowing I love you so
Anyone who had a heart
Would take me in his arms and love me, too
You couldn’t really have a heart and hurt me,
Like you hurt me and be so untrue
Anyone who had a heart would love me too
Anyone who had a heart would surely
Take me in his arms and always love me
Why won’t y

DionneWarwick

Emotion recollected in tranquility

If you have been with me a little while you may recall that I moved to a rather palatial temporary home in Grenoble in February and that I knew I would have to give it up at the beginning of July.  That time has come and in discussion with the local fire brigade, I have conceded that chaining myself to the stunning ornate pillars in the drawing room and refusing to move will simply be undignified, probably messy and not at all couth.  A teeny bit reluctantly, therefore, in a few hours I will close the door on this lovely interlude and very soon I will share what happens next.  In the meantime though, and given that it is summer and collective thoughts turn to high days and holidays, I thought a little less taxing on you might be to run a series of photographs accompanying poems, prose or lyrics that never fail to snare my heart and noose my soul.  Those which effortlessly conjure emotions and tempt my teeny-tiny brain to shimmy into something resembling coherence.

The first offering is this, a picture, taken more than three years ago in the north of le Cantal in the village that was then home and to whence I will head later today before decamping to the south of le Cantal to check on our seemingly endless renovation of a tiny square house.

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It seemed then, as now, to evoke this beautiful poem by a favourite amongst of all favourite poets …

He Wishes For The Cloths of Heaven

HAD I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half-light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

William Butler Yeats

PS:  The title comes from Wordsworth’s brilliant definition of poetry that it is ‘the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility’

And now I simply must dash  … .toodlepip!

NB:  My internet access will be tenuous until the weekend so please forgive me if I am tardy in responding to your messages and in reading your own wondrous blog-offerings

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 ….

Antici…..pation

The Bean is a well travelled dog.  Her mileage by road and air (and a little by rail) is boggling for such a small canine.  To facilitate her cross-border maraudings she has to abide by rules and she holds a European Pet Passport which logs her necessary vaccinations and rabies shots and, if she wants to visit the country of her birth, it registers the worming tablet demanded by the British to be administered not less than 24 hours and not more than 120 before travel by a certified veterinarian.  To partake of this delight, we toddle chez le veterinaire in our nearest town and the vet jokes with her that it is just a little French sweetie (she is bored with the joke, has been since the first time when she discovered the depth of the lie) and with me that it is ironic that he, a Frenchman, takes money (35€) from me, an Englishwoman to allow my British dog to travel to our own country.  I smile my beatific smile and nod and wonder why it is necessary at all and count my blessings that I don’t have to be wormed as well.

Yesterday, we pottered into the ‘Cabinet Veterinaire’ a little after 9 and were greeted warmly and asked to take a seat.  The newly upgraded surgery is  bright and cheerful with a row of  radiant yellow alternating with dazzling orange plastic chairs and a vast and jubilant tub of plastic plants in the centre.  I sat remembering the last time The Bean and I were in that spot in August.  A frail old man, driven by his strapping hard muscled from hard work 30-something grandson  struggled to carry his best friend, a sheepdog once bursting with energy now simply desiccated with age, into the surgery.  They were expected and were ushered silently straight into the treatment rooms.  I waited a while and then took The Beligerent Bean in for her vile pill which she spat out a few times to keep the vet on his toes, as is her custom, whilst he made his joke about the irony of it all and I attempted to be beatific but achieved instead a handsome grimace.  Afterwards I stepped back into the reception to pay my bill and there was the old man his grandson standing sentinel next to him as he pulled his chequebook out to pay for the demise of his best friend.  Cheque written, the lovely lady who presides cheerfully and appropriately over her domain began to explain what would happen to the dog and the old fellow shook his head and signalled his young protector to take the details.  He simply couldn’t and wouldn’t take in any more.  I caught his eye and said ‘I am sorry for your loss’.  He crouched on his creaking haunches and caressed The Bean, told her she was beautiful and such a goooood girl in cracked gutteral Auvergnat French which takes years to tune into accurately even if you are a Parisien.  He looked up, the depth of sorrow in his eyes so cavernous that I could not hope to reach the bottom and he thanked me.  Thanked ME.  The grace of ordinary humans never ceases to astound me.  Never.

Just ahead of us yesterday was an old lady.  Immaculately turned out in her best coat and shoes, shoes that have seen service for as many decades as I have taken breath, I would vouch, mended, remended, polished and serviceable, a scarf draped at the neck she was as pale as moonlight  in midwinter.  She had arrived in a taxi driven by a young woman of similar age to the grandson in summer.  In the interests of lightening this sombre piece I will tell you that our local taxi firm is magnificently named ‘Taxi Willy’ which obviously makes a girl born in England quiver like an ill-set jelly as I stifle my inevitable sniggers.  The driver was deferential and warm as she looked after her passenger who was as stiff as a board not in hostility but in the way of someone holding herself together because she must.  I surmise that this young woman drives the lady often.  Taxis (Willy’s taxis) are the only means of transport for a woman widowed who doesn’t drive and lives probably some miles from town.  It’s the nature of rural life when bus services cease to operate because we all have at least one car.  All of us that matter.  It’s the nature of being left behind in the place that you have always lived as it sheds it’s young to the cities and quietly erodes around you.  She was nestling her cat when they went in to see the vet.  When they came out some 10 minutes later there was no cat.  The vet, a lady explained to the woman the different options for cremation (the French word is ‘Incineration’ which to English speaking ears is jarring and rather unfeeling) …. she listened, she acknowledged, she fumbled in her handbag for her purse and the driver gently helped her find the money to pay.  She walked to the taxi and she climbed stiffly into the backseat and as they drove away I was struck by the enormity of her holding herself together.  I imagined the young woman seeing her into her silent home.  Making sure she was comfortable, offering to drop in and see her later.  And I imagined her, coatless and tiny walking to her chair as the taxi drove away, allowing herself to shed the tears that no man nor woman outside of her house must ever see.  And I thought of us all preparing for the holidays, the hubub of excitement, the coiled spring of anticipation of the gluttonous festivities, the plethora of brilliant sparkling lights lifting our spirits high, the overspending and the overeating and the overdrinking and the overmerrying.  And I thought how dreadfully sad it is to be on your own with your companion about to be incinerated and your life spent.  And I thought of the dignity of the old man, the ramrod buttoned up stoicism of the old woman and the kindness paid back by the muscular vital grandson and the paid taxi driver.  Nothing will make up for losing those best friends, I can hope that new best friends arrive to comfort them but life trickles away and it is so easy in this time of overindulgence to forget.  So I care to remember.

And my picture, offered in response to the Photo Challenge titled ‘Anticipation’ is The Greedy Bean anticipating cheese when we were picnicing on a hike last winter.  Pulling tongues, she assumes is cute and she always stands on her hind legs when anticipating these delectable morsels prompting me to almost title this piece ‘Stand Up, stand Up for Cheeses’ as a nod to the Sally Army and their wonderful work at this time of the year.  Her anticipation, by the way,  is always gratified just as the shadow of a sheepdog and the cherished cat were.   She, like they,  is a good best friend.  You can indulge in all the other dandy entries to the gallery here.

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PS:  Two Brains remarked after yesterday’s poignant encounter that it is so easy to be a little scornful and supercillious of people’s relationship to their animals but that the sad vignette finely illustrates the enormous importance that our domestic pets have in the lives of others and of us.  Later, wading through an enormous 5-course lunch including wine and coffee for the princely sum of 13€ each, the door of the Auberge burst open with the force of a hurricane but accompanied by no bitter wind and the light seemed to briefly dim as a leviathan with shaven head, sporting khaki t-shirt to expose his magnificent tatoo-adorned muscular arms and hunting trousers with a pair of positively combatitive laced boots and hefty leather and chrome belt to stash his beefing blades strode in and over to his fragrant, coiffed and chicly attired wife waiting decorously for him.  In the arms of this middle-aged goliath snuggled the tiniest Yorkshire Terrier, born with such tenderness and passed to his spouse with a care normally reserved for a scrunched up new-born and the identical kiss to the teeny canine forehead bestowed before he let his precious bundle go.  Comic and touching all in one we found it hard not to stare like a pair of uncouth Pinnochios.

And because it’s Christmas and the title has no relevance whatsoever, being, as it is, stolen from Frank N Furter in Richard O’Brien’s now legendary ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show’ as he makes his raucous entrance to the unfettered alarm of the stranded Brad and Janet, here is Tim Curry to play us out as I wish you the Happiest Holidays, le plus bon fête de Noël or the Merriest Christmas depending on where in the world you are.   ‘I see you shiver with antici…..pation!’

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:

Truly ‘t is a rare bird in the land

Those of you familiar with my nonsense will know that I refer to my spouse as The Husband with Two Brains or HB². But he has another moniker, one that arose when he wasn’t even in the same country as the protagonist, let alone the same room.

Some while ago, probably 6 months after I moved to France, I was taking coffee with Raymond (adopt French accent, for he is indeed a proud Frenchman). Raymond came into world of HB² quite by chance some 20 years ago. A knock on his office door, a frantic colleague needing help with someone he suspected to be a Frenchman who had appeared uninvited in the lab. Under gentle interrogation it transpired that Raymond had spent all his savings on a single air fare to New York in pursuit of an Astronomy Professor that he particularly admired. He being, at the time, a student and general helper at the Astronomy faculty in Nice. Picked up by the Police wandering aimlessly, he somehow persuaded them to put him on the Amtrak to Boston from where he found his way to Harvard and there the story brought him into my husband’s orbit. Struck by his tenacity, his extraordinary affinity with the night-sky, which is akin to the ancient astronomers who first mapped and tried to understand the world beyond our globe, and touched by his desire to learn, my husband took him in and found him work in his lab. Eighteen months later he returned to France to complete a degree having finally accepted that to be taken seriously in the world of Astronomy and Astrophysics, Cosmology and all the attendent highbrow orbits he fancied dabbling in, he must have a degree. Since that time, Raymond remains devoted to Two Brains and I would suggest with some reason.

Back to the café where I had enjoyed a coffee and a chat with the same Raymond and asked his advice. I was concerned about my husband at the time for reasons I now fail to remember – living lives separated by 3,000 miles nurtures anxiety, or at least that has been my experience. As we stood to say our au revoirs, Raymond clasped me by the shoulders and, as he faire les emphatic bises (the air-kiss-kiss we do in France but with supplementary vigour to impart fortitude), declared that my husband is really un cochon rouge – a red pig. I queried this with a smile intended to make me the fool and a gentle ‘quoi?’ and he repeated ‘il est un petit cochon rouge’ – so in fact not just any red pig , but a small red pig. My husband stands almost 6′ and though of light and lean frame is not one to ever be described as little, particularly in France where most men are of, let’s say more concise hauteur. Including Raymond. To be doubly belt and braces sure that I understood him Raymond then announced in English ‘he is a red pig, a small red pig’.

Later that evening on the phone to The Brains I asked him, having Googled colloquial, slang and vernacular French all afternoon in vain. I enquired in a roundabout Winnie the Pooh sort of casual way what calling someone un cochon rouge or indeed un petit cochon rouge might mean. The answer came back ‘red pig or little red pig’. So not helpful at all. Accordingly spurred by what had now become an obsessive need to understand, I made a full confession, including sharing my troubled mind over he who owns both brains and was subjected to a stunned and complete silence. The identical stunned silence it turned out that Raymond employed a few weeks later when asked what he had meant by calling The Brains a red pig. He claimed he had said ‘un petit cochon rose’ and meant that my husband is more sensitive than he lets on. Less macho, less girder-built. I can firmly report that he did NOT. No sir. Not. At. All. I heard him entirely distinctly and he called my husband a little RED pig. Of course it has stuck. It begged to and would have been dreadfully rude to ignore it.

Therefore, when staying in Boothbay Harbor, Maine as recommended by my blogging friend ‘The Weird Guy with a Dog’ whom I wholeheartedly urge you to check out, and confronted with this wingèd porcine outside a pretty store selling eccentric ironwork, I was minded to abduct it but made do with a photograph for now. I perfectly intend to own it when we have a house to put it on – after all who can resist such a wondrous hog, seemingly dancing in the air, gleeful cheeks a-puffing, perky ears a-flapping and that tail uplifted with such blithe abandon. Nothing at all like my husband but portraying perfectly the joie de vivre I suspect we all aspire to and with the added advantage of telling you which way the wind blows. It is a rapturous porker, a piggy I will dream of until I return to make it my very own. I was inclined to share this story by the Weekly Photo Challenge prompt this week ‘Rare’ – if it piques your interest, you can see a sensational selection of entries here.

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PS: The quote is Martin Luther, Priest, Scolar, questioner and reformer ‘A faithful and good servant is a real godsend; but truly ‘t is a rare bird in the land’. Raymond has been a good and faithful servant to The Brains these more than twenty years and as you will discover when I write more of him is surely one of the rarest of birds you will encounter in a lifetime. Actually Luther was uncommonly fond of his rare birds giving the accolade to wise princes and even more to upright ones. That would probably apply today though to politicians rather than princes, I would suggest.

I’ll be your dog!

On a beautiful day nearly two years ago, The Brains, The Bean and I set off for a walk that starts in the wonderfully named St Poncy (if you are English this will make you smile – my American is not good enough to know if Ponce means the same in your vernacular). Along the way three became four and this is the piece I wrote at the time – I hope you will enjoy it.

Half Baked In Paradise

We walk.  The Bean and me and HB2, when he is here makes three.  There are 340 marked PR (petit randonnees) across le Cantal and I have set myself the ideal of walking all of them.  In keeping with the rest of France these are marked walks, mostly circular and varying in length and difficulty.  The simple colour coding system tells you if it is easy (blue), longer and more difficult (yellow) or very long and varying in difficulty (green).  One weekend recently we decided to drive to the far north east of the departement (a drive of about 1.5 hours) and do a nice long green walk.  The duration was estimated as 4.75 hours for the 14.5 km.  We packed a picnic of cheese and bread and tomatos and set off.  The day was glorious – sunny, hot and with a fair scattering of the fluffiest white clouds dancing…

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Two Lymes and a Lemon

In the words of Cyril Raymond to Celia Johnson at the end of ‘Brief Encounter’  ‘you’ve been a long, long way away’ – I won’t flatter myself with his next line ‘thank you for coming back to me’ but I have been a long way away and I’m very much afraid that I HAVE come back to you ….

It’s been a bit of a saga so here is a précis before I dive back into stories of house hunts and refurbishments and hikes (though one does figure here) and generally half-baked meanderings.

Here goes:

  1. June 17th The Two Brained one is diagnosed with Lyme Disease after breaking out in purple patches all over his normally unblemished body.
  2. June 19th He whisks me by circuitous route, lest I guess the ultimate destination, to France.  Grenoble to be precise.  You may remember I have a particular affection for Grenoble
  3. June 21st To the courthouse …. I’m not in the dock and neither is he but I do have another installment for my book ‘The Lying Cheating Lives of Others’ and there will be more of that in later blog posts – a road yet to be trodden but one that I think y’all might enjoy
  4. June 22nd – home to our little nest in Northern Cantal for our Wedding Anniversary.  There is nothing nicer than to be in the village we were married in three years ago drinking a toast ‘à la notre’ in jolly nice French champagne
  5. June 23rd – up early and on the road to Marcolès to find out what progress on the house.   There is progress but it would be wrong of me to spoil the surprise so I will leave you in suspenders til the next installment
  6. June 25th – back to Lyon to drop off car and take a flight.  HB² is confident that a) I love surprises so will not look at my ticket b) I can’t actually see it without my glasses and c) I’m so excited that I will miss the only announcement for our flight.  Therefore I board a plane not knowing where I am bound
  7. June 26th – I wake up in Edinburgh, a city I know quite well, where my grandmother was married in 1918 and where I hounded my elder brother when he was doing his PhD because I could and mainly because he had a ready supply of male friends for the 18 year old me to make cow-eyes at.
  8. June 27th – I pick up a call from my vet who is boarding The Bean.  The words ‘there is nothing to worry about, but ….’ instantly make me worried.  A lot worried.  Because it turns out that The Small But Feisty one has also got Lyme.  Be still my pounding heart.  At least she is in the right place and they say she is responding well to treatment.
  9. June 29th – We decide to walk up Arthur’s Seat.  This is an extinct volcano within the city.  My aforementioned and extremely long-suffering brother lived in a very pretty district at it’s foot and we walked up often.  Actually he used to run it.  At his wedding his best man’s speech began ‘I first suspected that my flatmate might be mad when he asked the way to Arthur’s Seat for a run on a bitterly cold, wet and windy day…. I showed him and some time later I realised it wasn’t a case of might be mad,  he clearly was mad as he set off down the lane in a storm with a rucksack full of boulders on his back’.  He is still that same animal.  In those days there were a few walkers some with dogs and that was about it.  Today it teems with tourists making their way up, taking selfies and mostly wearing entirely unsuitable footwear (flip flops, fashion sandals, even the odd pair of heels) for what is a moderate hike up hill-paths rather than pavements.  We took the road less travelled and benefited from stunning views unencumbered by the masses.  The German girls hogging the peak did move over when I utilised my famed loud and I don’t care who knows it, voice and we duly stood for a moment or two before setting off down again.  All was well and I was lost in thought (mostly quite bitchy thoughts about the unsuitable nature of other people’s footwear) until almost at the bottom, not on a remotely steep bit, I slipped on shail and heard an audible crack.  The crack was nothing to my blood-curdling bellows and the air took on a blue hue as I cursed my way thorugh the early moments of what is actually a severe high ankle sprain coupled with 90% tear to the anterior calf muscle.  I must thank the lovely man from Canada who stopped to help The Brains wrestle me to my feet, the equally lovely café who served delectable lime and coconut cake (I was in shock – I needed sugar) and the wonderful nurse in Minor Injuries at the Western General Hospital.  Later as I limped into a taxi my husband asked how I felt about the last bit of his surprise – did I think I could manage it.  Could I?  I would walk through the fires of a spewing live volcano to do what he had in mind.
  10. June 30th – Two trains to Liverpool for lunch with youngest daughter and two more to Oxford to stay two nights with my mother who had one last surprise – my younger brother flown in from Bahrain to spend an evening with his big sister.   In  life, the real luxuries are the little things.  The thoughtfulness of my husband, the opportunity to see some of my family.  Secrets and lies can be quite beautiful – four of the most precious people in my world kept them and there is no sin in that.
  11. July 2nd – we collect the delighted but subdued tiny dog from her Boarding Vet.  She has anti-biotics and is making some progress.  Lyme Disease is a nasty nasty thing – sometimes, it isn’t easy being Bean.

So there you have it Two Lymes and a Lemon.  Here are some nice pictures from the Scottish leg of my odyssey and afterwards I will treat you to a PS:

The promised and entirely necessary PS:  Yesterday, I visited my lovely Cambridge doctor for a formal verdict on my leg.  He sympathised with Two Brains having to live with with a caged and beligerent tigress with cabin fever and asked how he is doing (he is a specialist in infectious diseases so had been asked for his opinion when The Brains presented with what appeared to be Lyme).  He commented that it was remarkable that HB² had been running the morning of his diagnosis  with Lyme.  I explained that our daughters and others are convinced he is, in fact, one of The  Men in Black.  The doctor seemed spookily content to agree ….

And for those unfamiliar with the achingly heartrending last scene of ‘Brief Encounter’ – here it is:

In dulci jubilo

I could have called this post ‘where there’s muck there’s brass’ which, if you are British you will know instantly is an old saying from the North of England  that means ‘where there’s sh*t, there’s money’.  But given that many of my readers are not British and on account of the much more important fact that I wanted to give you all a bonus at the end for being SO patient with me as I clawed my way back from the arrid desert of a dastardly writer’s block, I have opted for the title above.

The image was taken in April when we were back in our beloved Cantal for a few days and took the opportunity for a longish hike which promised a waterfall.

Alert as ever, my bat-like hearing was teased by a low humming which rose steadily to a gutteral grumble and finally a spluttering roar as rounding a corner on the craggy track we were ambling along, I was confronted by this.  A tractor with a tank on the back spraying cow dung on the field.  Muck spreading in fact.  Actually, I should say that our olfactory glands were alert to the identity of the machine long before we spied him.

I will forgive you for wondering what on earth this has to do with the weekly photo challenge this week titled Jublilant.  Even for me, this might seem a stretch.  But bear with, do.  In France the farmers always look positivily euphoric when they get the opportunity to splash some dung about.  They sit in the cabs of their tractors with beatific smiles seemingly wafted to an odorous corner of paradise.  I have no explanation for this.  Perhaps you can help me out?  But I do promise you I have studied the phenomena and it is a truism.  The grumpy growers I have seen in England scowling from their cockpit, nose invisibly pegged, mouth set in an inpenetrable line, eyes stony and unyielding are a world away from these merry manure slingers  and even though my nose may be wrinkling decorously at the fetid stench they are generating, they always upgrade my mood as they lift a paw casually from the steering wheel, like John Wayne riding one handed across the range, and bestow upon their mildly stunned audience a  raptuous and infectious grin.

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PS:  I promised you a bonus and a bonus you shall have.  And an explanation.  When I saw the title I closed my eyes and imagined myself for a moment on Christmas Eve, the wireless turned on as I potter through the preparations for the big feast the following day listening to The Choir of Kings College, Cambridge sing carols and hoping this will be one of them.

If you are of my vintage, you will remember that Mike Oldfield produced a thoroughly exhuberent instrumental version.  Here are Pans People,  dream date of every boy of my age and every girls aspiration joyously dancing on BBC Top of The Pops in 1975.

You might have a favourite, I love both and I particularly love that  In Dulci Jublilo means ‘in sweet rejoicing’ which is exactly what I am doing since I purged my clogged creative channel.

A Frozen Bean

As I kiss au revoir to The Bean who is flying back to Boston with Two Brains whilst I fly to the UK to spend time with family and friends, it seemed only polite to re-post an early blog from her. Rest assured she is working hard on her transatlantic flying blog. After all when you are a jet-setting Bean it is your duty to share your wisdom with the masses ….

Half Baked In Paradise

I am a dog.  My needs are simple.  Food (not necessarily dog-specific food), a bed (actually three beds – one up, one down and one in the car) and exercise.  In return I give total devotion and protection from the evil cat next door.  Serious  … it might look harmless but it’s actually extremely dangerous which is why I must attack it.

Today I want to tell you about snow.  I did not ask to come to this place (which took what felt like my whole life to get to and, even though I am small, I was squishelled in the car so tightly that to move risked the whole thing bursting on the peage) but I really do like it here.  I get to run around loads, I have discovered that I don’t mind getting wet and I rather like the snow.

Snow is white and it is…

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