Diu absentia … long in absence I have been. I make no apologies. It’s just a bit of life in my life. Nothing dramatic. No imprisonment, no hospitalisation nothing really to write home about. Nothing to write about. Except write I will. It’s what I do. Potted and neatly in a nutshell I have been moving rather a lot these past two months – US to England, England to France, France to England, England to France – friends and relics (stet) and Christmas with my most loved. In Grenoble a temporary tiny flatlet with a view of snow topped mountains and on February 1 moving all I own from the flat in Cantal that I persist in calling home because it’s where I feel home, to our permanent Grenoble place-until-summer. And beautiful it is. But more of that another time.
No shadows lurking in my cupboard, nothing to make me startle and stare wide-eyed in horror, just life and settling and I will give you more of it, I promise … much more.
Shadows and startling seem to be the order of things in this world just now. I rather feel that people are having to wear their most politically correct attire for dread of offending someone. Anyone! But I have always been the gal to stick her head above the trench and get it picked off by a beady eyed sniper far away out of sight on the other side of no-man’s land. So I have a commentary on the world at large. It is unhappy, it is uncomfortable and it is unpalatable for many. For many others it is hopeful because it has been increasingly uncomfortable and unpalatable these umpteen years and they desire that there will be green shoots which might give they and their loved ones a future in what has been their shiny world rusted and corroded to dust. Whether I agree or disagree with either side is neither here nor there but I give a gentle reminder that alongside it’s bolder, brasher brother ‘Greed’, that ‘Fear’ is the greatest eroder of hope, of decency, of love that we, as humans have in our armoury of weapons of mass self-destruction. Try not to be led by fear. Try instead, to be led by love. It is, after all la fête de St Valentin who was beaten, stoned and decapitated under the rule of Claudius because, put simply, he believed that young lovers should be allowed to choose to marry as Christians. Choice. That’s the thing old Valentine was about and he suffered a particularly appalling death for his conviction. In 269 AD. Please let me trust that we have evolved and progressed in almost 2,000 years. Just please.
My picture, which shows a rather perfect half (insert favourite cheese) moon, sentinel above a stone tower whose keepers can’t make their minds up whether to restore it’s authentic stone or leave it suffocated by the corset of concrete rendered upon it some aeons ago by zealous betterers, taken in the last 10 days in Gieres, a pretty commune just outside Grenoble it is offered for this week’s photo challenge captioned ‘Shadow’ (you can find the glories of the entire gallery here) – the moon’s shadow may not be apparent but it is there and, I would postulate, is not alarming at all.
PS: The title is taken from Cat Stevens’ (one of the enduring loves of my life) beautiful song ‘Moonshadow’. Here are the lyrics and, as a bonus, a lovely clip of the man who stole a little of my heart in nineteen seventy-something singing it …. give them a read if you will – if I ever lose my mouth – I won’t have to talk ….
Oh, I’m bein’ followed by a moonshadow, moon shadow, moonshadow— Leapin and hoppin’ on a moonshadow, moonshadow, moonshadow—
And if I ever lose my hands, lose my plough, lose my land, Oh if I ever lose my hands, Oh if I won’t have to work no more.
And if I ever lose my eyes, if my colours all run dry, Yes if I ever lose my eyes, Oh if I won’t have to cry no more.
Oh, I’m bein’ followed by a moonshadow, moon shadow, moonshadow— Leapin and hoppin’ on a moonshadow, moonshadow, moonshadow—
And if I ever lose my legs, I won’t moan, and I won’t beg, Yes if I ever lose my legs, Oh if I won’t have to walk no more.
And if I ever lose my mouth, all my teeth, north and south, Yes if I ever lose my mouth, Oh if I won’t have to talk…
Did it take long to find me? I asked the faithful light. Did it take long to find me? And are you gonna stay the night?
Isn’t it funny how you come across things just at the right time. Or maybe it’s just that one can make things fit when one needs or wants to. Yesterday was 11th November. Remembrance Day (or Veterans Day if you are in the USA or Canada and I imagine territories which I am too uneducated to know about). It can have escaped no-one’s notice that this year marks centenary of the start of World War 1. La Grande Guerre. Yesterday, therefore the world stood and still silent to mark with gravity the huge death toll of the following four years. And much was written and much will be written. Rightly.
After 11:00 we set off to the village of Anglards de Salers south and a tiny bit east of home by about 45 kilometres. After a light picnic we toddled off on our walk and passed the little Chateau de Trémolière making a note to return and visit when it is open (outside of the big cities and the heavy hitting sites, many places of interest are closed from Toussaint to Easter in France). It houses a collection of Aubusson Tapestries, fabric and needlecrafts are passion of mine and besides it has the oddest tower I have ever seen. We also passed the 12th Century Eglise de Saint Thyrse which features on the list of Monuments Historique de France and made similar mental notes and then an ancient stone fountain which represented the only water in the village until 1904 when the two fountains in the middle of the square were built. The plaque on the now dried up ‘font’ declares that those Anglardiens who exodussed to Paris would recognise one another by statement that they had been ‘baptised in the stone fountain’. The connection to Paris is something I will write of another time … the historic links between the Auvergne in general and Cantal in particular to Paris are fascinating and unexpected.
Looking down into the Vallee du Mars
Sturdy trees hastening to winter
Leaves dancing in the brisk November wind
Babbling through the woods the stream merries along
Vallee du Mars
The green belies the lateness in the year
As we walked the leaves danced in the wind. It was a classic Autumn day – north of nippy, the air clear as anyone’s bell and the views from the 800 or so metres up above the Vallée du Mars absolutely spectacular. In good spirits we came across a cross. A stone cross with the figure of Christ depicted, as is typical in the area, quite tiny with a disporportioned head and massively oversized hands. What stopped us in our tracks was the panneau next to it. According to legend (and legend, as my children were always reminded is a story so old that nobody can remember whether its true or not), there was a battle fought on this land between Attila The Hun and the Gallo-Roman forces led by Flavius Aetius (Roman) and Theodoric I (Gaul). This was in the 5th Century. Hundreds of years later at the turn of the 18th Century a group of men from the pays came across what they believed to be Attila’s encampment and a dispute broke out when they found a cross there. This stone cross. Presumably the argument arose as to who could rightfully lay claim to it. Good old compromise prevailed and agreement was reached that it would be placed between La Mars and L’Auze hence it has stood where we happened upon it for the last 300 years.
That’s the history or the legend but what stood out to me, was the body count in 451 AD. 120,000 men. In one battle. Of course I don’t have accurate figures for what the populations of France, Italy and Germany were at the time but I am pretty sure that they were a tiny fraction of the populations in the early 20th Century. Fifteen hundred years, ago all that loss of life. One hundred years ago all that loss of life. Present day all this loss of life. I am but a helpless little voice but maybe if all the helpless little voices gather together – maybe we could try to give to peace a chance and prove Plato, whose words I have annexed for my title, wrong.
PS: When we got home and did a little intersleuthing on the net, we realised that this picture is not simply of a rock but of the ruins of a 5th Century fortress which stood on top and around it – you can see some of the stone-work in the foreground. Sometimes you have to look a little harder to see the fact that war has been all around us for all time.
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.