I’m a simple soul. I prefer to have a positive spin for most things and I tend not to be deterred or detained by obstacles. There is generally a way over or round them and it just takes a little old-fashioned patience and a dollop of bluddy mindedness to get to the other side.
I married my beloved HB² not quite five years ago in our village in the Cantal and set about working towards the next phase of my life which was to be a life in Massachusetts because that is where he is based. Simple. Except that the process of getting Lawful Permanent Residency is not simple. And if you stick with me, you will learn that simple as I am, if there is a way to eek some drama and comedy out of a process or a situation, I am truly and simply your leading girl.
Whilst we waited, I settled in France. It was the sensible thing to do. We had bought a little house there (these days named, at least in my head, la Maison Catastrophe) and it made sense for me to give up my corporate London career with attendant regulated holidays and be in a place we love, and free to travel and be with His Brainship as frequently as possible. We waited and we waited and we waited. The process was as appealing as digging ones own eyeballs out with a spoon and as swift as paddling a canoe upstream with that same piece of cutlery. Such is life. Rules are rules and resisting them is both foolish and ultimately futile. We waited. We occasionally uncovered evidence that the great beast that is this bureaucratic process actually did have a pulse and it would lurch into life and ask a question or demand information before lapsing back into its apparently dorment state once more. And we did as we were asked and always with a smile and a twirl. And between smiles and twirls, we waited.
During this time, I nested and rooted and felt at home. In France. In 2016 the kindly beast allowed me a special visa so that I could spend the year in the USA but travel in and out freely. I had a lovely time and I felt quite homely . When I left in December I felt rather sad. Back in France I ingrained and entrenched some more and I began to assume that the permission to enter the United States and live there as a ‘Lawful Permanent Resident’ (Green Card holder as it is known in the vernacular) would never arrive. I qualified as an English Teacher. My French improved incrementally and raised itself far above it’s previous Spanish Cow default, for living in a city (Grenoble) rather than in the middle of truly no-whereland (Cantal) with far more opportunity to interact beyond the basics of shopping and passing the time of day with the Monsieur le Maire and the old lady opposite and I felt entirely and completely settled and content that I could count down the days to my husband’s retirement and that all shall be jolly and well in the meantime.
The phone call came at 3 a.m my time and a voice uttered ‘areyousittingdown’ to which I wittily, it must be said, responded that I was lying down since it was the middle of the night. If I had been sitting I would have fallen off my chair. As it was the bed was capacious enough to prevent me from rolling onto the floor. That pesky Juice Man had pressed the green light and all systems were go for the last lap to the finish line. That it was a lumpy bumpy descent I will write of another time but the fact is that I sat for days feeling bewildered. Of course I was thrilled that finally I would be able to live with my love and be what we intended when we married …. to.geth.er. But all of a sudden I was facing leaving France. And that, as one of the positive batalion of my friends named Philippe is sweetly fond of saying ‘Urt me in ze ‘eart’.
So for now I have left France. I will be devoting Friday to France from now on ‘FrenchFriday’ if you will and bringing you the stories that have remained untold from my tenure there.
And to kick off my other series, ‘Melting–PotMonday’ which will bring your stories from this side of the pond, The Bean will guest-write the first instalment. She has been quite disarmingly insistent that her version of events needs to be told and is highly excited at the opportunity to flex her pokey little paws on the keyboard.
To note is the fact that all the pictures in this post have featured before on my blog. I am currently away from base and it proved a step too taxing for the hotel internet to allow me to upload new pictures from my iPhotos library
PS: The title is from one of my favourite songs by one of my first and everlasting loves. Marianne in the context of this article is the National symbol of the French Republic portraying a Goddess of Liberty and representing that liberty and reason which in the end is really what we all should strive for, n’est-ce pas? So long Marianne, keep my place at the table, I’ll be back before too long.
And your bonus, with the added quite gaspingly delicious noisette that when I was at school, my enviably beautiful and absolutely aspirational classmate Sara Trill announced to those of us that affected intellectual by hanging out in the library that my father was the image of Mr Cohen himself – I took this as the highest praise by proxy (and let’s face facts, gauche girls like me had to grab the crumbs where they fell), and blushed decorously whilst purring internally for days. Months actually. Possibly my whole life through if I’m honest …..
And because this is a post about feeling forlorn about leaving a favourite, and because WordPress in their infinite wisdom have cancelled their weekly photo challenge making me and so many others a little wan and sad, and because their last challenge is ‘All-Time Favourites’ and I don’t have one, I will instead include this in the veritable feast of entries to be found here and bid one of the best things about WordPress adieu with a heavy heart.
When we have visitors or, as often, without and just because I can, I go and have a little tête-à-tête with Napoléon. He sits on his mount, ‘Marengo’ surveying Lac Laffrey about half an hour out of the city. The statue of him was originally installed in Grenoble in 1868 and was moved to it’s present site where he can look out over the water and the mountains in 1929.
On a recent visit one of my daughters asked me why people still think Napoléon was a such a great man. Of course that is a major simplification and I don’t intend to go into a detailed account of all the pros and cons of his undoubtedly iconic era but it would be wrong not to note that it includes the institution of the Napoléonic Code (or French Civil Code) parts of which are still in use around the world today. It forbad privilege based on birth, allowed freedom of religion and stated that government jobs must be given to the most qualified all of which might sound pretty musical to modern ears, I would contend. These facts might be received with some surprise by those brought up with the British version of history which tends to tell of his war-mongering and unabandoned desire to dominate the planet. The joy of Nelson’s triumph over him at Trafalgar ranks high as does his catastrophic mistake in trying to conquer Russia in winter. And of course Waterloo where he might have quoted the equally iconic Benny and Bjorn of Abba, in admitting that he was ‘finally meeting my Waterloo’.
So I told her the story of what happened at Laffrey in 1815. After the messy mistakes of 1814 when his armies had been frozen and starved into submission in Russia and simultaneously the British had made rather more headway than was cozy on French soil, he surrendered. The allies had him sent to the Island of Elba in exile. It’s not far from France – in fact rather appropriately it lies between Corsica, where he was born, and Italy from whence his parents both haled. Unfortunately for the European allies who were collectively breathing a sigh of relief, patting themselves on the back for a job well done and adjourning to a jolly fine restaurant to celebrate their undoubted brilliance, this was not a man who was going to wear a stripey prison suit and stare wistfully at the nearby mainland coast dreaming of prior greatness. Not a bit of it. Even before he was dispatched he had negotiated what might seem rather decent terms. He was allowed to keep his trusty and, by all accounts magnificent, Marengo, he dressed everyday in his customary cashmere culottes fresh pairs of which were shipped in weekly, his fine military jacket and crucially his trademark hat which he always wore in a jaunty horizontal, jutting out right and left far beyond each ear rather than the traditional North-South in order that he could be picked out instantly by his troops. He strutted around content that he was simply taking a little rest, a retreat if you will, and he plotted.
In March 1815, just a year after his surrender, he made his move. Abetted by his so called guards, he sailed back to France (complete with horse) landing in Golfe-Juan on the Côte d’Azur his plan to march with his 900 fusiliers back to Paris. Waiting for his arrival were plenteous faithful on standby for the word that it was game on. Avoiding Marseilles where the ‘desiré’, King Louis XVIII, had a copious barracks full of his own soldiers, he landed and processed through Grasses, Digne les Bains and Sisteron en route through the high French Alps. This passage forever after and to this day known as la Route Napoléon is, to be frank, not the easiest of drives in a modern car and I can barely imagine what it must have been like on horse-back and foot over 200 years ago in March which is frequently still wintry and bitter in the mountains. Admittedly it was probably a wise move not to insist on elephants as Hannibal had in 218 BC, but I equally don’t doubt that there was a nod to that feat, our Bonaparte being well disposed to all things Roman, even their defeat at the hands of a mighty strategist in them there hills. As he proudly progressed, more and more soldiers joined his ranks and by the time he reached Laffrey he had a very decent batallion with him. But here stood a problem for here stood the Kings men, guns pointed and cocked, swords ready to swash out of their well-oiled buckles and swipe lethally at the merest deft twitch of a hand all under orders from their Monarch to stop him. And stop he did. Slowly, Napoléon dismounted his horse and stood, cashmere culottes giving him the comfortable and familiar feeling of Emporordom, west to east hat reminding all fore and aft that they were facing or following Napoléon himself and uttered calmly: ‘Soldats ! je suis votre Empereur. Ne me reconnaissez-vous pas?’ – ‘soldiers, I am your Emperor, do you not recognise me?’. Then he took several steps forward, stuck out his admittedly rather fine example of a barrel chest and declared ‘S’il en est un parmi vous qui veuille tuer son général, me voilà !’ – ‘if any of you want to kill your General, here I am!’ There followed the tiniest nano-nod to the briefest micro-pause and then a riotous and tumultuous cheer. The entire troop, all the kings men themselves, fell in behind him to march decisively onwards and later that day he descended triumphant into Grenoble.
Now what stands out to me about this story is the sheer force of personality, the charisma and the brazen confidence that he was indeed the leader and that no-one would dare to stop him. We are, of course led to believe that he was a tiny man though I understand that this was British propaganda and that he was actually of average height for the day, but nonetheless and whatever his stature, really that is quite a stunt and I adore the story.
The picture is taken from le Vercors looking over to the slopes of le Grande Serre and specifically Taillefer. Look closely and you can see that the forest on the slope is in the shape of an eagle. Some say it is a natural phenomenon but it seems to me quite a strange coincidence that the trees should have naturally taken the form of Napoléon’s preferred emblem by happenchance. I was told that he ordered a forest be planted in the shape of two eagles and if you look to the right of the intact one you can make out the wings of a second which has seemingly and rather unfortunately lost it’s head in all the unfettered excitement. Perhaps he didn’t have the time to issue such grandiose orders, after all he only relit his fire for a further hundred days before succumbing to Wellington at Waterloo and being summarily dismissed to live on Saint Helena, remote in the South Atlantic where he died supposedly of stomach cancer. In fact many believe he actually died of arsenic poisoning. I tend to believe the latter theory – after all, who was going to risk this hypnotically powerful man casting his charming spell on a fresh batch of conspiritors and causing a mighty headache to Europe all over again? If that is my given, then I prefer to believe that the people themselves either planted or felled trees to create the eagles that would forever remind those casting their eyes towards Laffrey that it’s place in history was earned at the hands of this mesmerizing and magnetic man.
History, you see, is not entirely finite, it lies in the hands of the storyteller. Is it myth, legend, a story so old that no-one can remember what is true any more? Probably. And I rather like my version. It sits kindly and if you would kindly remember, out of all things can come good if we let it. No one wants another Napoléon hawking his desire for conquest across a continent, but in the end it must be reconciled that he left a legacy that benefitted not just his own kinspeople but those that live, for example in Western Europe – even if he would have preferred the whole of Europe to be called la France ….
Disclaimer: No-one has been harmed in my retelling of this tale so whilst begging your pardon for my poetic licence I beg you not to throw rocks at me for any sins of omission or erroneous embellishment
PS: My title is taken from Tennyson’s powerfully simple poem ‘The Eagle’:
He clasps the crag with crooked hands;
Close to the sun in lonely lands,
Ring’d with the azure world, he stands.
The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls;
He watches from his mountain walls,
And like a thunderbolt he falls.
Alfred, Lord Tennyson
And your bonus …. The Eagles – well I would, wouldn’t I? Desperado seems to fit the mood of those last hundred days and the film has horses and guns and you can by all means make the rest of the story up for yourselves … personally, I find it a lovely diversion.
Until I was fifteen, I had two Grannies. My paternal granny was always known as Granny Kim on account of her eponymous, over-stuffed cat which resembled a large tabby cushion and used to lie on the half-landing of her staircase in a sunspot meditating fatly. Granny had only one arm. The other was lost in The First World War. Amputated on account of gangrene, not mislaid. She was a nurse as so many of the women of her generation were. She never expected to marry after losing her limb. With the over-abundance of women to the dreadfully depleted stock of men when peace followed the tragically dubbed ‘war to end all wars’, she rather felt that her fate was dancing with other spinster women and dreaming of a never-to-be love. However in time, quite some time, she met my Grandfather who had had his vocal chords severed by the village doctor during an emergency traceotomy as a child and from then on could only speak in a whisper – as a point of interest he spoke nine languages fluently in his whisper. From time to time I remember to contemplate the thanks I owe the physician who, respecting his hippocratic oath, in that moment saved a young boy’s life and by doing so gave me the chance of birth. Granny Kim used to say that they were two cripples together. I imagine these days she might be shushed and cautioned against deflowering delicate sensibilities with her candid comment.
Granny Kim (who I have written about before) was irresistibly irreverent. She had seemingly no filter between what was in her head and what came out of her mouth. For example the busty girl tottering down the seafront in tightest of tight, scoopiest of scooped angora sweater must clearly have heard the shrilly uttered ‘VERY uplifted’ from the neat tweed clad old woman tottering toward her. And the French neighbour of my own new to motherhood mummy proudly showing off her own newborn to Granny was asked what she had called the child. ‘James’, replied Madame. ‘And James was a very small snail’ said Granny. It’s A A Milne, from ‘The Four Friends’ but the French lady, so my mother reports, was visibly and vividly offended and operated the etiquette of ‘on ne peut plus se voir’ which as Mel of France Says explains ever eloquently her means ‘one cannot see you any more’ and literally makes the recipient invisible ever after. My mother wondered if she imagined Granny was calling her sprog a frog. She wasn’t. She was saying the first thing that popped into her head. I have the same tendency. I try to control it. I frequently fail.
So what is that preamble about. Well, with only one arm Granny had a drawer FULL of single gloves kindly donated by countless people over the years who had mislaid it’s pair. She found it ceaselessly amusing that people never stopped in their surge of waste-not-want-not good heartedness, to think that their gift was only useful if it happened to be the correct glove for Granny’s remaining hand. Therefore she had a quite magnificent collection of single gloves languishing in tissue paper which she had graciously accepted rather than burst anyone’s bubble of well meant intent.
Which brings me to Grenoble. Grenoble was, for many years the capital of glove-making in France. The giants of glove-making made fortunes and the most revered of all was a man named Xavier Jouvin. He has an entire quartier dedicated to his name – looking over the river it is lovely and there is a large statue of him in the middle of it’s main square. I have become very fascinated with Xav and found out that he is most revered for having created a form of mass-production of gloves. He fashioned a machine that could cut up to SIX pairs, six mind you, of identical gloves at one go. Breathtaking in 1838. When I leave Grenoble, it will be with a pair of hand-made Grenoblois gloves to remember my time by.
You might recall that I was previously living in a positively palatial apartment provided by the institute that my husband was doing a tranche of work for in the first 6 months of this year. Amongst other delights it had corinthian columns and as the time approached to leave it I seriously considered chaining myself to these pillars and refusing to leave. I had however, a last-minute change of heart and decided that I would leave quietly and with gratitude for the time we had spent there. Sugaring pills tends to provide incentive, I find. My candied pellet is this: the place we found, the small apartment that is less than a third of the size of the other, is contained in what the French call Un Hôtel Particulier which is in effect a grand residence built as the town house for someone of importance. Guess who? Well so far, I know it was one of the great glovemen but I am not able to finitely say which one. Of course I hope its M. Jouvin Xavier. I am currently researching more thoroughly but this oasis in the centre of Grenoble has given me the rare chance to live in a very special building that retains much of it’s original fabric. From the hand painted walls in the entrance hall to the beautiful tiling and ceilings it is wonderful. I have the luxury of a terrace and a garden and best of all I have a double curved staircase up to the front door which makes me feel that I should be wearing kid gloves and matching slippers with some sort of an empire line Lizzy Bennet dress and bonnet with thick silky ribbons neath my chinny chin chin, at all times. My quarters are exquisite, dare I say better than the last place and also retain a cornucopia of original features. If you would like, I will share the innards of this place I am occupying … I’m happy to but I never want to overtax with tedium..
PS: Granny Kim was fond of reciting this poem and peeling with laughter at it’s quite gasping ghastliness. I had never paid it much heed except to recite it idly and wince when having flashbacks to Granny Kim in her hammock. Until today, when incubating this post it popped into my head spontaneously and inevitably. I thought I should find out who IS responsible for this vacuous verse.
It was written by a woman called Frances Darwin Cornford. She was the grand-daughter of the immeasurably brilliant Charles Darwin. Ironically it seems that the father of evolutionary theory had a somewhat poorly evolved grandchild. As it turns out
G K Chesterton agreed with me. Read his wonderfully ascerbic response to this quite appalling effort, please do …
To A Lady Seen From A Train
Frances Darwin Cornford
O why do you walk through the fields in gloves, Missing so much and so much? O fat white woman whom nobody loves, Why do you walk through the fields in gloves, When the grass is soft as the breast of doves And shivering sweet to the touch? O why do you walk through the fields in gloves, Missing so much and so much
The Fat White Woman Speaks
G K Chesterton
Why do you rush through the field in trains, Guessing so much and so much? Why do you flash through the flowery meads, Fat-head poet that nobody reads; And why do you know such a frightful lot About people in gloves and such? And how the devil can you be sure, Guessing so much and so much, How do you know but what someone who loves Always to see me in nice white gloves At the end of the field you are rushing by, Is waiting for his Old Dutch?
And as a bonus because I swiped it for my title, The Smiths belt out ‘Hand in Glove’ in Glasgow on this date (September 25th) 1985 – it fits perfectly, as all good gloves should
Such little lives we live if only we would admit it. All of us however fêted. Marking out our pathetic tiny snail trails as we go. Imprinting what we do – good, bad, downright ugly through our little journey. Imagining ourselves important or impotent when in fact neither is probably true.
Stanley Kunitz, born in a place that I ran (or rather more accurately staggered) last Autumn at a time when I thought I would never run again has it right in this poem. I, me, mine … not at all relevant when you equate the microscopic me to the great landscape of time in which we exist. Just let’s protect what we have – we can do our little bit by acting decently, by regarding others with an importance not by dint of their shoes or their achievements or their accumulated wealth but just because. Because they co-exist with us on this planet we all accidentally find ourselves on.
I have indeed walked through many lives. All of them in this skin. And I will not be done and I will not give up hope until I draw my fatal last breath. Never. Not at all. I am many layered and yet simple cored just like you … if we all accept that, the rest is blissfully uncomplicated. I give you this in answer to the weekly photo challenge titled ‘Layered’ of which a delicious gallery of entries you will find here.
I have walked through many lives, some of them my own, and I am not who I was, though some principle of being abides, from which I struggle not to stray. When I look behind, as I am compelled to look before I can gather strength to proceed on my journey, I see the milestones dwindling toward the horizon and the slow fires trailing from the abandoned camp-sites, over which scavenger angels wheel on heavy wings. Oh, I have made myself a tribe out of my true affections, and my tribe is scattered! How shall the heart be reconciled to its feast of losses? In a rising wind the manic dust of my friends, those who fell along the way, bitterly stings my face. Yet I turn, I turn, exulting somewhat, with my will intact to go wherever I need to go, and every stone on the road precious to me. In my darkest night, when the moon was covered and I roamed through wreckage, a nimbus-clouded voice directed me: “Live in the layers, not on the litter.” Though I lack the art to decipher it, no doubt the next chapter in my book of transformations is already written. I am not done with my changes.
PS: The picture is taken at Vassieux-en-Vercors where people lived and died in a rather more profound way than I can ever begin to imagine.
The very first walk I ever took in Grenoble was a tentative totter up to le Bastille which sits some 400 metres above the city. I casually strolled up through le Jardins de Dauphines and found myself facing Philis. Philis is rather arresting in a slightly aggressive warrior sort of way poised casually astride her rearing steed brandishing one-handed some sort of lethal rapier. Clearly this is a woman to laugh in the face of weak-minded affectations of femininity like sitting side-saddle or wearing frocks and who would not shirk from skewering all comers with her dirk. In fairness and for the aforementioned reasons, I did not instantly realise she is a she, portrayed as she is as a rather masculine, if a little foppishly dressed fighter. Of course, mens’ fashions were, a little frou frou in 17th Century France. I inched closer and it was clear that I was, indeed, beholding a gallant gal.
Philis is a legend. We all know what legends are, I hope. Legends are stories that are so old that no one can remember if they are true or not. Keep that front of mind as we sashay elegantly forward. Philis was born Philippe de la Tour du Pin de la Charce in 1645, the fifth child of high falootin’ tootin’ parents – hardly a surprise given the full mouthful of a name they blithely gave their infant. At the age of six her Aunt, a poet of some acclaim, took her to watch a series of Roman plays in Nyon and SO amazed was the girl named Phil that she promptly declared she was changing her name that very minute to the entirely Roman Philis. Which, let’s face facts was probably just a clever ruse to get a more girlie name. However, it became clear that she had no intention of being a damsel, even though her newly acquired name was a little less … manly, more maidenly. She competed brilliantly with her brothers and became a breathtaking horsewoman and dashing blade wielder. She fell in love with a Catholic, became betrothed when he promised to convert to the Protestant version of exactly the same faith as his but, a little caddishly one might observe, he reneged on his pledge. She then did what any self-respecting jilted girl might resolve to do … she became an even better horsewoman and an even greater blade and vowed that she would not so much as look at another man except down on him from high on her hot-blooded stallion.
This area of France is historically named le Dauphiné which means ‘dolphin’ and accounts for the fact that though we are 275km (170 miles) from our nearest coastline, there are an awful lot of dolphin references around the city. Forward to 1690 and enter stage right or left depending whether you are facing North or South, Victor Amedée II. You are absolved of any guilt for not remotely realising there was a Victor Amedée I, even though it actually turns out that, in fact there was also a further Victor Amedée imaginatively named Victor Amedée III. Victor’s correct title was Victor Amedée Duc de Savoie. Savoie was next door to le Dauphiné (it still is) but he had absolutely no intention of being an affable neighbour. He far preferred the idea of snatching the Dauphiné lands to add to his already bulging, to the point of vulgar, property portfolio. According to her legend, Philis organised a résistance and heading an army of peasants she successfully saved her region from the marauding Victor. The rather mealy-mouthed scolars who variously argued the story for over 100 years, claim she simply fronted a band of looters who often came here “to collect contributions from citizens of local towns and villages” and that it was thanks to her relations with the French Royal Court in Paris that she was ever rewarded with a pension from King Louis XIV. Whichever version you choose, by the 19th Century her myth had mushroomed and for a while she was called Jean d’Arc du Dauphiné. Several historians have muted her laurels but she is still proudly acclaimed Heroine de Dauphine on her statue. I know which version I prefer.
And as this guest piece is being written for a cookery blog I thought it only fitting that I give you an appropriate recipe: Le vrai Gratin Dauphinois. You will kindly notice that a real Gratin Dauphinois has no cheese in it even though it is said that Escoffier experimented and was rumoured to occasionally add a little. Like a Quiche Lorraine, here in this Gratin’s spiritual home, the real deal has no cheese and that is how I infinitely prefer it. If you doubt me, give it a try – I promise it is a sumptuous experience that belies its meager list of ingredients.
Ingredients: Potatoes – not waxy new ones. King Edwards are perfect
Double cream or Crême Fraiche – you can dilute with milk if you prefer. I don’t prefer.
Freshly ground nutmeg
Freshly ground black pepper
Salt – if your butter is unsalted Method:
Preheat oven to 150C
Butter a shallow but not too shallow oven-proof dish
Peel (reserve the peelings) enough potatoes to fill the dish when thinly sliced
Rub with a cut clove of garlic
Peel, chop and smoosh the garlic
Slice potatoes into slender rounds – some use a mandolin, I don’t have one so I just keep them as thin as I can without adding slivers of finger – never elegant
Layer the potatoes with a sprinkling of garlic, grated nutmeg and ground pepper
Repeat til all the potatoes are used – three layers for my dish
Dot with butter (mine has salt crystals so I don’t add salt)
Drench it in cream – I used 50cl
Bake for 2½ hours until bubbling, unctuous and smelling like your life depends on eating it. In fairness, your life WILL be incomplete if you don’t.
I served ours with green beans and Diot. Diots are a traditional Savoyard sausage. I apologise for being unable to resist the irony …
PS: Eat only fruit for many days afterwards as a penance for the ambrosial decadence of the dish and to notionally save the impending blockade in your arteries. But not before you have triumphantly taken up the saved peelings, coated them in a little oil of choice (always olive chez moi) and a good grind of black pepper. Or frankly whatever you like to season them, who am I to dictate to you? Pop them in a highish oven for 10 minutes. Recline on sofa or chaise longue and idly nibble as a little snackette with your choice of libation.
PS: The title is Julia Child – une heroine culinaire
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.
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’
Mr Clarke had the unenviable task of being my ‘Form Tutor’ in my last two years at senior school. Mr Clarke, an undeniably smart man, only taught the top two years. Those that ostensibly really wanted to learn his subject. English Literature. We, being witty as well as bright called him ‘Forsooth Verily’ by dint of his superbly Shakespearian air made more acute by the fashions at the time … softest suede desert boots that made no sound, not even a whisper, as he glid across the high-polished wood floors, velvet jacket fitted to his slender form and what here in France they would call a ‘foulard’ of embroidered cheesecloth casually draped around his neck. His beard was deliberately bard there is no doubt. He had the delight of teaching me and the double wham bam no thank you mammy of being in charge of what would these days be called my ‘Pastoral Care’. It is fair and truthful to own up at this point in my too rapidly ageing life, that I was a handful. Twice a day, at it’s start and finish, the group of us that formed Tutor Group 6SB congregated in the library, for this was his domain. This was his exhalted place. This was his book-lined empire. We did our prep, we swatted for exams, sometimes he led a discussion, sometimes we rehearsed an assembly. I say ‘we’ but I might reasonably admit that I had a habit of being less than engaged with the process. One fine afternoon he asked me to please, for goodness sakes please, concentrate on the work in hand and added that I was ‘vacuous’. This provoked an inevitable barrage of ‘what does that mean, sirs’ from the tiresome object that was me. He suggested, quite reasonably that I might look it up in the dictionary. These vast volumes lined the bottom shelf of his cave and I remember sitting cross legged finding the correct tome. Quite askance I read the all too obvious definition. He of course implied that I was ‘as a vacuum’ …. absolutely bugger all going on in my head. Mr Clarke was a very smart man. So acutely embarrassed and humiliated was I that my reset button was pressed toute de suite. Later that summer I would open the envelope with my all-important A-Level exam results and be really proud of what I had achieved rather than quietly ashamed of wasting what ability I had. Thank you Mr Clarke. You sealed my future with your withering remark. You made me face the fact that given the gift of something of an intellect, it is honestly the height of fatuous rudeness not to at least try to use it wisely.
I give you this little story as my offering for the WordPress Weekly Photo Challenge ‘Dense’ of which you can find all the suitably solid entries here. My picture, taken on Sunday on la Crête de la Molière, seemed rather apt – the dense cloud trying it’s hardest to mask the snow covered Massif de Belledonne, the tree who has seen it all before, now old and weathered, battered and broken but stripped though it is, it still stands sentinel surveying it’s realm.
PS: I remember in my salvo of protests asking Mr Clarke if he was actually and really telling me I was dense. He replied that he most certainly was not. For density implies that there is a good deal of matter in the cranial caverty and he rather prefered to leave me in no doubt that there was nothing between my ears whatsoever. Stinging. Really it was stinging.
The quote is from Molière’s ‘Les Femmes Savantes’: ‘a learned fool is more foolish than an ignorant one.’ I would postulate that this is inarguable and that if we are to be learnèd we would do well to use our learning wisely throughout our days. Even those jolly days of miscreant behavior before we step blinking into the light and have to be vaguely growed-up.
Some time ago, when we were fledgling lovers, existing in the protective bubble reserved for the newly amorous, Two Brains brought me to a place called Vassieux-en-Vercors. The drive up from Grenoble is littered with sombre reminders of a time, only decades ago when the spectacular landscape played backdrop for the most merciless realities of a world at war – we stopped at various places, never idly. Here it is impossible to forget how cruel and cold humanity can be. Here no bubble is sufficient to protect you from nauseating emotions wrought from the darkest, starkest of realites.
Vassieux sits on the Drôme side of le Vercors. The Vercors is nicknamed ‘the flat iron’ for a reason … it is a high plateau with higher peaks frilling it, thrilling visitors and chilling those that know the secrets that it keeps. Mountains tend to do that. They look, are, so magnificent but they are unyielding, unforgiving places by default without being privy and council to the Résistance called le maquis in a brutal global war. Huge harsh lumps they are – they don’t actually ask for delicate humans to impinge on them but sometimes flimsy mortals have no choice.
The war, that war of 1939-45 invited such necessity. Men whose country was overtaken by a callous regime they did not invite nor condone, who wanted it freed and reverted to the values it held dear, who did not want the uneasy treaty of Vichy but rather actual and total freedom, those men, those women for can we just agree that men and women are equally people, those people formed the Résistance. And the ones who under that same treaty were told they had to go and do work in Germany. STO it was called (Service de Travail Obligatoire … I don’t honestly think you need my translation) – those young men, they said non and they joined the Résistance.
What happened in 1944 was disgraceful. Not simply by dint of the deeds of the enemy (German in this case) but actually and tragically because of the behavior of the high fallutin’ tootin’ allied commanders. Another time. Really another time I will feel fully equipped to tell the story. In the meantime all you need take to heart is that this village, and all the others barborously besieged, is a defenseless duck sitting pretty on a flat plane. That it can’t have been difficult to overpower it, however hard les maquis tried to fend off the merciless assault is painfully, graphically clear. And there are references to the places they fought and fell all around and not just here, throughout this great monolith known as le Vercors. Villages burned, Villagers slain. Men rounded up and annihilated standing proud against cold walls in the place they called home because it was. Their home. It is not pretty. Not at all. It is tough beyond the bounds of that pathetically soft word. And then you visit the Nécropole and you walk, sapped of strength, sorrow wrenching bile from your throat among the bare little crosses, pure white standing proud in pristine gravel and you pathetically collapse as though a razor has slashed your heart because you are facing a family – a grandmother, her two daughters and all the children of one of them including a baby lying side by side, their lives extinguished mercilessly. Every single one of them. See it, feel it and tell me, tell me not to weep.
My husband had the immense privilige of spending time some years ago, with Robert Favier (known as Mattres) who was created Chevalier de Légion d’Honneur having been a high ranking leader in the Maquis. Monsieur Favier, died in 2010 aged 96. HB2 also met Joseph la Picirella who founded the original museum in Vassieux. He made it because he could and because no-one should forget what happened. Really no-one should. He also died in 2010 aged 85, he was little more than a boy, therefore, when he joined the Maquis. His museum is still there where he built it, just behind the church. The French Government built another museum, the official museum, which sits perched 400 metres above the village and is of deliberately austere design.
To walk the walk I walked, in the footsteps of those braver than brave maquis was humbling. A privilege beyond privilege. And here are some photos. Because my words are meagre and poor. I will leave you to imagine it for yourself or simply to enjoy the beauty of the place. The choice is yours. Mine is not to tell people what to do, simply to bring you to a place that savages my senses and of which, when I am confident that my thoughts and facts are accurate and well-founded, I will write in greater depth.
PS: When you have digested the place, when you have taken it all in your sturdy stride, you might answer me a simple question. What did we learn? Because from where I am standing, sitting, lying down on a bed of flowers, nothing has changed. When will we learn to leave well alone? When will greed release it’s toxic grip on humanity? When? Can I have it now please? Because little girls picking flowers should NOT be perpetuating a scenario that ends in their husbands pushing up daisies for the sake of yet another bloody war. When will we ever learn?
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.
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!’
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.
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: