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Posts tagged ‘French life’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Smile, boys, that’s the style

What is it that elevates a place from somewhere you lay your weary bones and nourish yourself to being allowed to be  home?  I have yet to work out the why and the what and, in truth, though it is a notion that captivates me, I probably never will find a finite answer. For four years until this September, my home was a village in the North West of le Cantal.  This was hugely significant for me since, for reasons honestly too dull to share, I had moved house eleven times in the previous fifteen years. Suffice to ingest that only one of these moves was by choice.  2016 saw me seldom in this really real home as I was allowed by the Government of the mighty United States of America to reside in  Massachusetts with my two-brained husband and, believe me, I mean truly believe me, I was and remain grateful.   This year we spent the first half in Grenoble together languishing in a vast apartment complete with corinthian columns courtesy of the institute for whom he was doing a tranche of work.  DSCF0375

During all this time, I stoically avoided the entirely socially graceless elephant in the room.  This elephant was the  elephant of good sense which clumsily, due to it’s enormous size and laudibly serious regard for it’s purpose, reminded me constantly that I needed to give up the place in Cantal that I clung to as home with it’s lino floors and terrible light-fittings BUT beautiful high ceilings, exquisite front door, lovely park and outlook beyond and the, to me, deliciously enchanting sound of tiny children taking their first steps on the long road of compulsary education in the classrooms and playground below – the house, you see was built in the 1870s as the village school and still functions on the lower floor as the école maternelle (nursery school).  Eventually I crumpled and admitted defeat just before we closed up our grandiose Grenoble apartment and my husband flitted back to his day job in Cambridge MA and said in a Winnie the Pooh’s stoic friend Piglet-like decidedly small voice ‘we need to let go of the flat and I will stay on in Grenoble’.  And thus and instantly it was decided.  I moved into the flat in which I now live in the heart of ‘The Capital of the Alps’ …. of that more soon, which I did promise you two months ago – I honestly do keep my promises though deadlines can be a fluid concept chez moi.

So you see, the thing is this, as modest as my original French place was, it was home – the flat and the local people  wrapped themselves round me like a gentle hug, let me be the odd English bird even though most of them had no real idea nor particularly care where England even is and never demurred nor murmured to my knowledge behind my back (humour me here, if you will) and to move from it was very very very hard.  It left me feeling deeply sad and it is only now that I feel the bleak and hollow-making mist lifting and life beckoning it’s enticing finger again.  The day we left, our friend Mathilde, the village pâtissière, she of the most swoon worthy madeleines ever to grace le goûter and whom we thought two years ago we were going to lose to cancer, tried every way she could to persuade us that we really CAN stay, that we will find our home in the commune.  It broke my heart. Because we can’t.  For now we can’t.  It is a foolish notion and doesn’t make economic sense and even a half-baked mind like mine, occasionally has to bow to the elephant that trumpets good sense.

The men who moved us were truly, beautifully,  wonderful.  They had moved all our things to Grenoble and then back again (my present home is rented furnished) and made raucous jokes at my expense about women not being able to make up their minds and men being forced to lock step even though they have logic on their side – politically entirely beyond the pail of correctness and exactly and precisely what I needed that rather wan day.  They appeared, outrageously early on parade, that moving morning and it was frankly fortunate that I was not still languishing sanguine in bed and drinking in one last moment of that room that had been my chamber and my comfort when my husband was far away, my delight when I could steer him upstairs when he crossed the Atlantic for a stolen moment or two with me and the sniggering snorting first thing in the morning snuggling place when a daughter stayed with me for a while.  They were tasked with taking our things to Marcolès where eventually, when we have finished the house, they will be unpacked.  Their good humour took me through the day, their understanding that moving is not always easy however much you might love the place you are going, a lesson to all.  We rather felt we had got to know them over the course of the three moves they executed for us. The household name honestly eponymous international firm who originally moved me from England to France should take note.  The attitude, the efficiency, the spirit of understanding that they showed (and that included a young lad of less than 16 years old) should certainly shame the British firm who ended up paying me quite a lot of compensation for losing precious things and duping me with a shared lorry that was supposed to be a single dedicated van for my things. The fact that the pantechnicon that arrived precisely at the time we had told them not to on account of the school managed to decapitate multiple branches on the avenue of plain trees that lined the drive and that the oafish driver came from the school of shout loudly aand slowly and then more loudly and more slowly to make yourself understood to Johnny Foreigner did not attract compensation but it took me months to recover from what felt like a particularly brutal form of removals abuse. You can read the name and address of the French firm on the pictures of their lorry and I would not hesitate to recommend them – they work France-wide and internationally.  We are not done with our moves, we will use them again.

Marcolès was eerily foggy when we arrived and the lady opposite, widowed last Christmas spent a happy 40 minutes watching them unload my life, gleefully and rather beadily eyeing the contents of the see-through boxes full of soft furnishings and the lovely Georgian table named ‘Gerry’s Aunt’ for it’s provenance, my sleigh bed and the washing machine which is not white but black and consequently befuddled her, before the bone-intrusive damp cold got too much for her and she hastened into her parlour from whence she twitched her lace curtains for a further many several minutes.  She was convinced they could not, should not, would not get their lorry between the hairdresser and the post office … looking at the picture, it is unsurprising but they managed it by the skin of the skinniest of teeth and when the postman arrived to empty the letter box, he too entered into the spirit of the occasion leaving his van running and hooting humerous insults at the men from the next department over.  Not many move into our village, too many are moving out – it was a day for celebration and I know I am fortunate.

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Now all my life lies in boxes on the ground floor.  It is time for me to take up the story which I dropped when I moved to the US last year and I will now promise you a Marcolès Monday every week for the next several to bring you up to speed with the work that we have done in the last two years and particularly the work we did in the 6 months that my husband was living on the same continent as me for once, earlier this year.  We have much still to do and we have now put the house in semi-mothballs …. I will go once every couple of months and carry on, but on a dust and air budget progress is very slow.  But the real thing is that we are doing it – no ritzy contractors, no contractors at all just sweat, occasional blood and epic tears.  One day they will be tears of joy when we finally manage to say ‘our work here is done’ … that will be a day for champagne and dancing.  And I, the optimist, look forward to it.

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And there you have it. The why I have been a little absent. My heart felt the leaden wieght of sorrow because my safe-place, my home, my warm hug, my protective cloak, call it what you will has gone.  But the future is ahead – it always is, we have no choice in that and it is for me to take up the drum and beat out the rhythm of life again, live it to the full appreciating all that I have and not (as I caution others but on this occasion have fallen foul of myself) getting stuck in the pesky rear view mirror.  The mantra I brought my children up with is planted to seed and bloom in my own heart once more … everything changes, nothing stays the same.

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PS:  The title comes from World War One Marching song ‘Pack Up Your Troubles’ written  the brothers George and Felix Powell. If you have a mind you might read about the ultimately tragic story of the song here.  Whilst I would in no way compare my recent mood to the ill-fated Felix, the melancholy of his story somehow seemed to fit the mood of this piece.

Your bonus:  ‘Oh What A Lovely War!’ which never ceases to remind me that I have absolutely no right to any blues whatsoever:

Pack up your troubles
in your old kit bag
and smile, smile, smile
while you’ve a lucifer
to light your fag
smile, boys, that’s the style

What’s the use of worrying
it never was worthwhile
so, pack up your troubles
in your old kit bag
and smile, smile, smile

Pack up Your Troubles

Felix Powell