I have absolutely no notion why being given ephemeral as a prompt should have me thinking of C S Lewis. Maybe my mind is back a little in Oxford and with the daughters I raised there on a diet of, amongst so many other wonderful books, his magical volumes. But this picture is about as ephemeral as it gets for me. Taken from the roadside in the early, early morning a week or so ago on the way to Grenoble you see the church at Polignac sitting in the clouds and you just know that the moment had to be captured because otherwise it would be lost. But as the great man said … there is better ahead. He, of course was a devout Christian and speaks of the Heaven awaiting him. For me that heaven is of our own making here in this life.
Just as a point of interest C S Lewis died as he lived, quietly and without fuss, on 22nd November 1963, his death (and that of Aldous Huxley the same day) eclipsed by the assassination of a THAT President Kennedy. I remember 23rd November 1990 when Roald Dahl died. A young pop singer died the same day. It was certainly tragic, she being only in her twenties, but the BBC devoted a full report to her and gave one of the outstanding writers of any time just a few cursory seconds. I was incensed into complaining. It is the only time I have ever logged a complaint with the BBC. Of course my complaint changed nothing but for me it should never be a barrier to a voice that it will not tangibly change anything. The irony is that 52 and nearly 25 years later the same would not happen on the occasion of either death. Because I think it fair to say that like so many great artists, both are more popular now than they ever were in their lifetimes, though famous both certainly were, when breathing. Life is an ephereral thing all round, I would say.
PS: Lewis wrote these words in a letter (since published in ‘Letters to An American Lady’) to an old lady whom he never met though they corresponded for a decade. Mary, as one is probably minded when frail and running out of steam, was speaking of the end of her own life. In fact, he wrote the words just five months before he himself died. Ephemeral indeed.
The title is ‘Wall’. I have a quiet obsession with walls. When I meet someone new I have to own up to to this compulsion fairly quickly to explain my conversation discursively tailing off when I spot a lovely piece of brick work or, even better, a good effort at a dry stone wall. I want to learn how to do it. When I was a little girl our brickie was a displaced Glaswegian called, predictably, Jock. He used to come and speak unintelligibly and make walls in our garden or for a new garage or such-like. The house had been built for Mr Lyle known for his savvyness with sugar, to-wit Tate and Lyle. Edwin Lutyens had an influence in its design and construction and Jock was loyal to getting it right – not just any old bricks, not just any old cement. The right stuff for the right place. He was a tiny man with a large family living in a little house on a not so pleasant council estate some distance from us. He taught me by osmosis that one should never ever judge a book by its cover. He was a good man with a skill and not a deep pocket and looked after his own as best he could. A man of extreme moods, the world was either bright and sunny or dark and repellent. I liked Jock and was happy to carry him a mug of stewed tea laced with 7 sugars and whatever mother had made for elevenses or tea (we were ‘posh’ so that was cake or scones, his ‘tea’ would come later and would be what we called ‘supper’). Simultaneously, being a horse-mad youngster, I spent much of this formative period on a pony out in the wildest parts of Britain – moorlands, highlands and sparce wastelands and I developed this love of walling.
So when I saw this challenge, I was all over it. And I sifted through and through the hundreds and hundreds of pictures of walls that I have and gave myself a headache trying to choose because I stubbornly refuse to use more than one that evokes the prompt each week. Nose-face-spite. But then, just as I was throwing my toys out of my pram, spitting my dummy and generally being childishly unpleasant, something so right cropped up out of the blue driving home from Grenoble at the start of the week. A wall on a wall – a man-made stone castle, now decayed, toothlike atop the rocks, imperious and impervious to the elements and ever driving off the scurmisher as they remain standing firm. Nature – 1, human beings – 0.
PS: The title is from Paul Simon and picked because he says in that song ‘I built a wall around me’ which has always echoed favourably with me. Give me a wall any day …. keep em out for I embrace my hermitude.
And I got a wall around me That you can’t even see It took a little time To get next to me
And one last thing …. in answer to the request to find out more, I have discovered that this is actually Chateau de Crussol in Ardeche …. I believe the border with Drome is the Rhone which skirts Valence over which the ruin still watches
I’ve spoken before about the number of miles I drive, we drive – The Bean and I and whenever possible my Two Brained husband too. But there is a fourth crucial element without which it would not be possible to even leave the house here except on foot (or pedal power which is another story entirely). That is the car. The car that since we moved here (and including the long drive from Oxfordshire) has covered an eye-watering 30,000 miles – that’s in one year and a handful of weeks. I have been remiss in not speaking of this wonderful little beast – bright yellow and Spanish (SEAT) it was originally called Devendra Flan when I got it 2 and a half years ago. My mother helped me find it and wanted to call it Buttercup (in fact she insists on calling it that to this day and I don’t correct her). The name came from a Devendra Banhart song called Little Yellow Spider and the ubiquitous Spanish pudding found on virtually every menu across that great country’s girth which is actually Creme Caramel but which the Spanish always refer to simply as Flan (or Flarn ‘you don’t know flarn’ – Ben Stiller and Jack Black know). Anyway since becoming French the car is known as Fronk and his voice, courtesy of the TomTom is beautifully gaelic.
Why now? I hear you ask … why the sudden reverence to this 4 wheeled delight? I’ll tell you … they say that you only realise you love something when you are about to lose it. Fronk has had his share of scrapes this year including a broken wheel when I frappéd a concrete pillar in a blizzard but I knew he would pull through and he did. He’s driven to and from England 6 times since and had a service there in May followed by a new drive shaft (cambelt) and a bit of surgery to replace something in his ignition timing in September when he went into Limp Mode (yes, honestly that’s what it’s called) on the M4 to Bristol. New tyres to complete his all weather set (which took some ordering in the UK in September ‘no, madam – they won’t be available til November’ but were eventually tracked down and fitted and the English tyre man paid tribute to the French workmanship on the front wheel (from the frappé) which was a moving moment in my personal journey of entante cordiale. He seemed so well on the trip back earlier this month, so well when I drove to Clermont to meet The Brain from his plane the following week, so well as we travelled the typical couple of hundred km around the place to walk and visit houses and just generally potter around. The shock when we sashayed out in the late Autumn sunshine last Thursday to drive a few km to do a couple of hours walk and settled behind the wheel, turned the key and nothing, absolutely nothing happened was a fully armed body blow. Panic! Rush back indoors, Google wildly for homestart information when you don’t have roadside assistance …. blank, zippo, Google say ‘no’. Fortunately The Brain was calm and I have a good filing system – a call to the insurance company revealed that homestart is part of our policy with MAEF and half an hour later the cavalry arrived. The car started – I was watching from our balcony – smiles all round. Then confusion (me) as the car was loaded onto the breakdown truck (Depanneuse) … phone calls were made and the men stood round in a circle being well … men. The truck was driven away with Fronk on top, I was beside myself – he had clearly died and I hadn’t even said goodbye. Tears were soothed by The Brain – apparently it was the spark plugs, the man had ordered them and they would be fitted the following day when they arrived (French for spark plug is Bougie incidentally which is the same as candle so it was fortunate that it wasn’t me doing the talking because that really would have been an invitation for misunderstanding …)
The following day the car was returned. Humming, frankly and I was singing along. I love that car. I don’t care who knows it and I will never again commit the sin of omission and fail to mention the crucial part he plays in my life. Thank you French insurance, thank you French garage. I love you all.
PS: You might like to take note that according to the garage here, it is common place for garages not to bother to change plugs when they service a modern car … these had never been changed and the car has done 135,000 miles in total and had a major service in the summer. You might like to make sure your garage does bother. Just a thought 😉
As previously noted, we drive a lot, little dog and I a motley pair and better still a trio completed by the husband with two brains. One day not so long ago we set off for Grenoble at around 5 a.m. We go to Grenoble reasonably frequently since HB2 has associations with IRAM (Institut de Radioastronomie Milliemetrique) and indeed worked there for 9 years throughout the 1980s. He had a house in the Belledonne mountains until recently and still has a bank account at Caisse D’Epargne in the village of Uriage les Bains. That we had to go TO the bank to reset his PIN will tell you that this particular bank is a teeny bit perochial – this is a 5-6 hour drive and we can’t use the nearer branches in Cantal because Caisse d’Epargne is entirely localised. Hey ho.
Chateau d’Uriage in Uriage les Bains
We made it in time for His Brainship to get whatever it was sorted and for The Bean and I to have a stagger up to the chateau (now in flats which I rather covert the idea of living in) and back down again.
Back to the University campus for lunch and a quick meeting with the glorious and waspishly effete Philippe (him) and a speedy spin around Castorama in search of another garden chair (The Bean and me). In case you are concerned, they didn’t have the right chair in the right colour … silly me – its almost time for Christmas, why would a shop have garden furniture in Summer!
Choices, choices – 3 p.m on a sunny Tuesday what should we do next. We could walk in the mountains … appealing. We could go shopping … I can always talk myself out of that one. Or we can go to Vienne. The Brains have been before and I have wanted to go here ever since I drove through it the very first time I came down to Grenoble on my own and decided, with no time constraints to go entirely non peage. That Leonard Cohen played in the Roman theatre in 2009 is a further lure. I love him. I wasn’t there but I wish I had been. He used to be accused of writing music to slit your wrists by when I was at school and proud of the fact that my dad looked like him according to the very beautiful Sarah Chant. I was not very beautiful so having a father who resembled an icon was a way of attaining that popular girl status we all craved if only to protect ourselves from the less lovely bullies who would make your life miserable at the drop of your school beret. I still bathe in his exquisite lyrics and though he has never really been able to sing and I am told his voice such as it was is fading, I would still have loved to sit and listen and marvel at the agility of the true poet.
L’ancien Theatre in Vienne
Of course Vienne won. You know that. And we arrived in the late afternoon of a particularly warm day, parked and strolled. This place is lovely. The second largest city in Isere (the largest is Grenoble) which in turn sits in Rhone Alpes. The Rhone strolls leisurely through it. Large and languid it needs make no extraneous effort to impress. It just is. The town was first settled by the Romans and wears those remains well. Here the semi circular Ancien Theatre, there the Temple d’Auguste et de Livie, the ruins of the medieval castle on the hill that was built on Roman footings, the pyramid (otherwise known as le Plan de l’Aiguille) which rests on a four arched portico this is a place that knows what it is.
Cathedral de St Maurice
Le Temple de’Augustus et de Livia
Mediaval tower with extensions
L’Hotel de Ville
Spanning the river Rhone
L’Eglise St Pierre
It shimmys you through its history easily and the town moves around its monuments fluidly – al fresco bars and cafes abound and clearly it is thriving. A huge new tourist office is being built looking over the river on which you can take a boat the size of a small principality to cruise and dine. We made a note that we will. It is a place we will return to and explore over and over again. We whistle-stopped around it seeing the stunning cathedral of St Maurice, the elegant city hall and all the above except the needle. I noted the casual layabout roman carved blocks by the Temple with some glee … one of the things I love about Rome is the way the ancient has just been squished in with the modern over the centuries and the bits that drop off just stay where they lay. It has the beauty of an overstuffed boudoir whose owner can’t bear to part with a single thing, even if its broken.
I should note at this point that I have an overwhelming and admittedly, to the casual observer, quite possibly strange obsession with the departements and regions of France. When we first drove the long drive from Oxfordshire to Cantal late last summer, we bought a book in one of the Aires on the way called ‘Les 101 departements de France’. It is aimed at children …. probably quite young children if I’m honest but I love it. Slowly, slowly I am making sense of the geography of this huge country and slowly, slowly I am learning all the departments, their numbers (they are numbered alphabetically) and I can idly note where the cars that punctuate my drives long and short come from. And its not entirely pointless to know where they are from – for instance, there are lots and lots of Paris plates in Cantal and I know why …. if you want to learn you will have to stick with me because I am being discursive enough in this post already. But I will, I promise, write about what I have learned the historic connection between the two is, before very long at all. My pledge is that if you hold you breath, you won’t turn blue … I don’t want asphyxiated readers on my conscience so that will be spur enough to write it. Back on piste …. I live in Auvergne (in Cantal – number 15 to be precise) and to the west of me is Limousin and number 87 is Haute Vienne. Which means there must be a Vienne. And indeed there is (number 86 naturally) – I’ve been there … it’s in Poitou-Charente and its capital is the lovely Poitiers which I will always think of as Sidney. If you are as old as I you will know what I mean. But Vienne is not in Vienne. It’s in Isere. And that it was historically called Vienna makes it even more confusing. But one thing I was sure of that Viennoisserie, the wonder of French patisserie must certainly come from Vienne. I pressed my nose against several pastry shop windows … I am often to be found in this postion lured by the sweet wonderlands they always are. And I went home secure in the knowledge that I had been in the home of the croissant. Only to find that they come from Vienna. But then again … maybe it was this Vienna. Before it was Vienne. Surely. Surely the French can’t be eating Austrian pastries … can they?
I’d buy it ….
On the long drive home I told my husband a story of a trip a little while ago … stay with me now, settle and I will share it with you.
In April we travelled to Russia. For Russia you need a visa. The two venerable institutions (that which he works for and that which he was visiting) communicated, many people filled in many forms for him and we travelled to Lyon to drop our passports, pay a fee and settle back for their return in a week or so. Two Brains went back to the US a few days later (that our daughters are convinced that he is one of The Men in Black may go a way to explain how the passport was in Paris via Lyon and he still managed to board a flight from Europe and enter the US without a murmour) and I woke the following day to an ominous email telling me that something was wrong in the process and I needed to contact him urgently. Actually, my paperwork (which I had filled out myself) was perfect but unfortunately the enormous combined brains of the two venerable institutions had made a mistake with his. Frantic calls to Paris, more paperwork and eventually, after nearly two weeks, a call to tell me that the passports were ready for collection in Lyon. That I was due to travel to London on the Monday left me with no alternative but to drive down before the Consulate closed at midday on the Saturday. Which I did. And a lovely drive it was – sunrise over the volcanos of the Puy de Dome can never fail to captivate. The Bean, unimpressed by the display slept and we made Lyon by 11. I ran in and out bearing the treasured passports complete with visas and skipped back to the car to take tiny dog for a walk and grab a coffee before the journey home. The consulate is in a pretty area of what is a lovely city and one that I fully intend to explore but enough of buildings and rivers and city ambience, the point of this story is a person.
Pretty it is, but mostly closed on a Saturday morning, in this area that is mainly devoted to businesses. Vainly looking about for a likely pit-stop I nearly fell over a tiny little lady pulling a shopping trolley prettily adorned with macaroons. She was trying to catch the attention of The Bean so I stopped in politeness and truthfully complimented her cake-garnished pull-along. In my opinion there can never be too many macaroons in a life, preferably to devour but if that isn’t an option then images adorning pretty much anything are an acceptable reminder of their delight. The lady was truly like a sparrow – tiny, black eyed and spry. She coaxed and cajoled The Bean who dutifully danced on her hind legs and the lady rewarded me with the tinkling laughter of so many fairies ringing tiny bells in the tree lined square. She told me she had a dog indoors who is so old that he can only make it to the bottom of the steps twice a day to perform his necessary functions and that aged and slow as she is the dog can’t keep up at all. She asked if I was from Lyon and I told her no, English but living in Cantal. She was interested. Did my husband work there … no – America. She hoovered up every morcel of information I could give her and pointed in turn to the only cafe open on a Saturday morning in this district. She wanted to know if I had children. I told her about the girls and about the son I gained with marriage. She laughed at my eye-rolling descriptions of them and asked if they visit often. I told her they would in summer I hoped. We chatted away and she asked if I had grandchildren. Not yet I said. And then all of a sudden her face creased in the wrong way. The sad way. Her dark beaded eyes clouded and tears pricked them. I touched her arm and asked stoutly (I am English in a crisis) if I could help. She composed herself and told me that she had lost a grand-daughter. To start with I thought this must have just happened but in fact it was over 20 years ago. Aged barely 19, killed in a road accident. A fool drove his car into hers. He survived, she died. She said not a day passes that she doesn’t think of the girl, a promising ballerina so full of life then brutally stamped out. The girl was her youngest grand-daughter. She said the dancing stopped with her passing. I couldn’t leave her in her sadness so I suggested we take coffee together. We walked the square and sat in front of the cafe for maybe a half hour. I would estimate that this little bird was at least 85 and probably ten or even more years older than that. Her clothes, immaculate, her tiny frame that would fit in her own shopping trolley, her lovely lilty slightly growly voice, her directness affected me then and I will always think of her. Not as often as she thinks of her dancing grand-daughter but nonetheless I will think of her often. The grief still so raw after decades and the root of it the fact that she still walks and her grand-child is motionless. Dance me to the end of love ….
Plateau d’Artense in the Belledonne above Grenoble …. to me this is where my father walked when his spirit left his body. I can see the lively young spirit of a dancer on the path with him
PS: Familiarity breeds contempt – unfortunately 2 weeks later I got a rather official letter rather officially telling me that somewhere between Brioude and le Puy en Velay I had been doing a whopping 97 in a 90 zone – 1 penalty point, 45 euros and a note to self that nearly a year here has made me rather too blasé. To note: Here there is no 10% cushion … in fact at 90 kmh the allowable excess is 2 kmh – that’s less than 1 mile per hour at nearly 60.
Last week the usual suspects – the two of us and the extremely small dog got into the car at midnight ten and headed for the bright lights of Paris. It’s about 500 km to Paris and we had an appointment at the US Embassy just off Place de la Concorde at 08:50 sharp. Dog settled under her blanket in the soft basket she travels in when we drive – the definition of a ‘litter’ is a mode of transport powered by humans (often slaves) in which the high-born travel in luxury. That pretty well says it in terms of The Bean in transit.
The two of us are well versed in long drives living where we choose to. So one of us drives for 2 hours and then we swap, the theory being that you get some sleep. We at least rest. Nonetheless, arriving as we did in the City of Lights at a little before 6 a.m was slightly hallucinagenic. I was driving as we headed down the right bank of the Seine and Two Brains snapped like a Jap as le Tour Eiffel loomed ahead. Frank (pronounced Fronk after the wonderful wedding planner in ‘Father of The Bride’), our SatNav, called us ever onwards to our destination and was surprisingly accurate in finding a carpark right opposite our destination in Rue Gabriel. So amazed were we that he had pinpointed what we had asked for (he has a talent for getting tired and emotional at the most inopportune moment) that we drove past and had to do a sweeping circuit back again. Safely parked we surfaced into the great iconic square and this is the point – it was almost empty – insignificant traffic around, the sky lightening and for once an almost uninterrupted view of a landmark.
The drive was entirely worthwhile. Whatever awaited in the Ambassade (and for that you will have to wait) somehow didn’t matter in that moment in the slicing chill of the early morning which could only come close to being spoiled by a hugely rude waiter at breakfast. And believe me, he tried ….
PS: The quote is, of course, from Casablanca and is attributed to Howard Koch one of several screenwriters who came and went in the process of producing that miracle of a film.