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Posts tagged ‘Volcanic Chaos’

In chaos there is fertility

At various points in my life I have described myself as a ‘cat herder’.  Herding cats being, if you are idle enough to dwell on the issue, a thankless and almost impossible task.  At times it has been part of my job and at other times it has been part of my role as a mummy and surrogate mummy to whoever was clinging to whichever of my children (and there were usually multiple clutches of them) at that particular time.  I find that a combination of drill Sergeant Major and free-wheeling hippy chicky does the trick a treat.

In the summer of 2015 I was asked to reprise this role – to give a one off performance of ‘The Cat Herder’ to an audience of lightning fanciers and experts and interested amateurs from all over the world in Aurillac.  Aurillac is the capital (or prefecture) of Cantal and is known throughout France as the coldest town in the country.  This is because the weather girls and boys on all channels and in the newspapers always have the lowest temperature on any day listed as Aurillac so therefore it must be true … hold that thought.

The meeting was to last two days and HB2 and I plus The essential Bean arrived the night before and checked into our dog friendly hotel.  Not an issue since so many hotels are dog friendly in France and in fact most cafés and restaurants bat not the merest graceful eyelash at the dog dining with you.  Particularly tiny dogs like ours.   This makes The Bean  fully portable and no hindrance to our lives whatsoever.  Since we were eating en masse with the entire posse of delegates and organisers we left her snuggled in her basket dreaming of Bean things and enjoyed our evening immensely.

The following day I hit the ground hell for leather, checking everyone in, making sure those that hadn’t paid in full before the event opened their moth-eaten wallets and placed their owings in my ultra-efficient paw, setting up the refreshments and generally acting the part of the elegant swan to perfection.  Swans, we know, paddle frantically but invisibly and glide their impeccable glide with an unparalleled serenity.  Hold that thought too.

The fly in the ointment was the fact that this gleaming conference facility, the pride of Aurillac and contained in their Centre de Congrès had a large and prominent no dogs sign – one of those with an emphatic diagonal line through the offending pooch.  We asked if they really meant it.  For example most of the newly refurbished small airports in France have these signs but you will find there are hounds and houndettes strolling around unpeturbed in all of them – in fact The Bean is entranced with airports in France because she tends to be fêted royally by passengers, crews and sundry workers alike which she considers, quite understandably, is her right.   They did mean it.  They really, really did mean it so we had no choice but to leave her in the hotel with me running up and down stairs at frequent intervals and hightailing it to our staying quarters to air her.  Believe me this was not the plan – worrying about the dog whilst herding all these cats was unequivocally NOT the plan.     Unfortunately the might of Two Brains’ intellect was one of the star attractions of the show so he was required to sit and look brilliant and wise throughout all the presentations and ask pithy questions in English and French of the presenters.  Me, I’m just the tea girl.  I know my place.  Cast your mind back a couple of paragraphs.  Aurillac is the coldest place in France so leaving The Bean in the hotel room  was no more than a mere inconvenience, surely.  Except that it isn’t at all cold (well in winter it can be pretty nippy, downright chilly and even positively freezeling because it is in the mountains) … in fact the daytime temperature those two days hit 45°C (thats 113°F).  So quite warm.  Not thermal underwear weather.  Not knitted mittens weather.  Not even nylons weather.  And certainly not weather to have a dog cooped up anywhere and mostly not in a hotel room which unlike the conference facility did not boast even a ceiling fan, let alone air conditioning.  I have seldom passed such an anxious time.  We got through it, of course we did.  I found a little square round the corner with nice shady trees and took her to sit (and be fêted by sundry locals) every hour and I kept her watered.  I think brittle would be the best word to describe me as I herded those cats to perfection for hours on end back and forth to the restaurant for lunch and dinner, dolling out the refreshments which they seemed to destroy like a plague of locusts in minutes flat at every break and all the while smiling my rapturous smile, inclining my head graciously, gliding my silky glide, giving of my famed shimmy and schmooze and wishing I was somewhere else entirely.

The end of the conference, the end of the longest two days of my entire life,  was marked with a gala reception and the guest of honour was the fourth most important man in France.  The Mayor of Aurillac who has a particular interest in Science was also on the guest list.  And of course all the delegates from all over the world.  They were each presented with a lovely box of Cantalien goodies and the food laid out on the long tables looked achingly beautiful – salver after salver of exquisite bite-sized confections savoury and sweet, and the champagne on ice waiting to be poured by the equally exquisite and immaculately uniformed team of young servers their beatific faces never flickering from that porcelain expression that sits between inscrutable and the merest flicker of a smile and had clearly been drilled into them by the rather  forebidding and hawk-like bloke in charge.  I don’t think he had ever smiled.  I don’t think he actually had ever wanted to smile, for smiling surely would be a foolish fripperie and not something to waste ones life on when one had important functions to preside over and guests to skillfully intimidate if they fell short of ones exacting and giddyingly high standards – none shall pass but the most hallowed and they shall be obsequiously attended to and with aplomb so that all the lesser mortals need only look on and dream that they too might one day be so elevated.

We waited and we waited and we waited.  The tired delegates, most of whom were not French did not understand why we waited.  And to be frank neither did I.  I asked the hawk-eyed witherer and I swear he dessicated me on the spot with the most epically condescending yet oh so fleeting glare of my entire life and, lips barely flickering as he murmured his patronising finest, he explained that in France you cannot start proceedings until the guest of honour arrives.  And the guest of honour was the fourth most important man in France.  I went wearily downstairs with Ferdinand (a rather goat-like German who had been part of the organising team for reasons that escape me).  Ferdinand is a ladies man.  He flirted tirelessly and I ignored him tiredly.  Every so often I went upstairs to report that I had nothing to report.  We waited and we waited and we waited and, if I may be candid the heat, the lack of food (I had been serving refreshments, not eating them for that is  the Cat Herders remit) and possibly dehydration which would have certainly been rectified with a glass of bubbly but the bubbles couldn’t be popped without the all important presence of the fourth most important man in France.  I became silently hysterical and not a little delirious.  And then I spotted him.  A man on a bike weaving his purposeful way towards the building.  He dismounted and removed his bicycle clips placing them in the breast pocket of his, admittedly rather elegant whisper grey shirt and chained his bike carefully to the front of the building and smoothed down his undoubtedly snazzy designer black jeans.  I usually pride myself on picking up on clues.  This day my inner Marple had abandoned me – presumably a victim of evaporation brought on by the heat.  He entered the building.  I spoke up.  I admit I shouldn’t have.  Hindsight is not wonderful.  It is painfully embarrassing.  I asked him, with a little twinkle of irony in my tone if he might be the fourth most important man in France.  No, he replied.  I’m the mayor of Aurillac.  The ground failed to swallow me up and Ferdinand who up to that point had been an irritant became my hero as he swept the aforementioned and understandably disgruntled mayor up and took him up the equally sweeping staircase.  Minutes later Ferdinand reappeared and as if by magic, so did the enormous black car bearing two of  the most glamourous and chic women I have EVER seen in my life and the fourth most important man in France.   I remained stoically silent.  I may never learn but I seldom repeat the same mistake in the same evening.  Seldom I said.  Not never.  Fortunately this was a seldom night.  Ferdinand greeted the VIP and his entourage and then introduced me ‘this is Mme B – she’s the head  of diplomacy for the organisation’ …. levity has never been more welcome.

And don’t ask me who this fellow was … I never discovered.   He’s the fourth most important man in France – why on earth would I need to know more than that …. after all I’m just the Cat Herder and I know my place.

I offer you this little bauble as my entry to this weeks WordPress Photo Challenge titled Chaos and you can see all the other fabulous entries here.


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:

But tell me, where do the children play?

Where is the line between stubborn and stupid?  I’m not sure I know, in fact I think I have walked the thin line most of my life.  Stay with me as I tell you a tale of malice in which our obstinance prevailed and we won, what for us, was a little victory.

We walk.  We walk a lot.  In all weathers and all over the place but we have one rule.  We stick to the PRs – Petits Randonees which, all over France are the marked routes (almost but not always circular) which vary in distance typically from 5-30 km and in difficulty too.  In Cantal we can buy books from the Tourist Office at the head of each paysage (there are 14) which describe the route, what to look out for and give a little map.  I always carry the relevant one in case I am challenged.  Incidentally there are also GRs in France – Grands Randonees which are, well – Grand, varying from 80-90 km upwards to many 100s.  We will walk some of those across France and all of the 340 PRs in our departement.  We love walking, you see – we see and feel the terrain so much better than from a car or a train.

Ten days ago we set out to do PR16 in Le Cézallier Cantalien.  We chose the walk carefully it being only a handful of kilometres from the friends we were dining with that evening.  The day was ludicrously fine – you could easily have pretended it was summer were it not for the tell-tale burnishing to the trees giving the game away that it was in fact the very end of October.  We arrived at the start (and finish) point, parked in front of the ancien ‘Gare de Landeyrat et Marcenat’ now a velorail station of which more later, donned boots clipped The Bean onto her brand new hi-viz leash (it’s a cat lead but please don’t tell her) and set off in childishly high spirits.  Not a half kilometre down the road having walked past a fine painted panel proudly demonstrating the good walks (including this one) that families could take from this place and spotting several buzzards and kites wheeling and dealing in the rudely blue sky above, we spotted the first way-mark.  An altercation took place because it seemed it could not mean turn left since there was an electric fence blocking the path.  We pressed on but, looking at the map, it was obvious that we should turn off and circle the village of Landeyrat which we were fast approaching on our race-fit legs (give me a little artistic licence, will you).  Hey ho – clearly we had missed something but if we traversed the village we could pick up the path again the other side.  I stopped to take some pictures of this typical small conurbation high up in a pays that depends entirely on agriculture for its living.  Two Brains was looking at a fortified farmhouse as an elderly woman snapped at him ‘do you want something’.  ‘I was just admiring the house’ he replied, typically mild and unflappable and we walked on.  We nodded to a couple of other people and said ‘bonjour‘ to stoney faced responses.  If you have ever watched ‘The League of Gentlemen’ you will get the picture … this was not a welcoming place which is unusual in Cantal – the people are well known for their lovely nature but I guess there is an exception to every rule.   We strode on, found the path and followed it looking down a beautiful little valley to a copse of gilded trees in which we supposed we would find the ‘Chaos’ that was described in the book.  Chaos in this context means a volcanic rock-slide and there are many across the area (it is, after all, entirely volcanic) but this one is singled out as special.

We walked on and came to a Stile waymarked yellow.  Which is what we were following.  The other thing to note about this stile was that it was electrically wired.  As was the entire field.  Our stubborn-meters clicked in simultaneously.  Neither of us was giving up so we found the best way under and rolled.  First Two Brains, then the dog lifted over, camera, bag, coat and then me rolling inelegantly under.  We walked to the Chaos which was worth it – a fantastic spewing of gigantic basalt rocks and a great view of the Orgues above.  We have driven past Les Roches de Landeyrat before many times but being on foot as ever, was better.  Which was just as well because after that the walk descended rapidly from bad to appalling.  Literally every stile had been electric wired and I think we spent as much time rolling as walking.  Our senses of humour were fraying but the stubborn, pig-headed pair that we are would not, could not give up.  At one point we were squeezed between two fences and had to walk through waist high nettles and undergrowth – I carried The Bean.  She was on her glow-in-the-dark leash most of the time and that is absolutely reasonable.  I have already said that Cezallier relies on agriculture.  We were walking amongst cattle.  You must respect.  And we do.  But, and here is the bite.  The area also needs visitors – visitors who will buy coffee, lunch, dinner.  Stay in the hotels and auberges.  Many many people have been driven out of business here – the hospitalities industry struggles.  It is hardly surprising when an objectionable farmer makes one feel about as welcome as a runny cow pat in your living room.


Still smiling – or are they gritted teeth?

This was the point in the walk where we nearly failed.  The next stile  was behind a secondary electrified fence.  This meant that we had to roll under one, stand up in a space that was about 18 inches wide and walk to the style and climb it without touching the fence.  We managed it.  We are extremely bloody minded.  We did this to a background of shotgun fire.  We assume that the target was not us since neither of us was hit.  Only three more electric fences to go and we were back.

Normally, on my own I expect to walk the walks in less time than the estimate given by the Tourist Board.  Normally with Two Brains and our attendant chatter we take the guestimate given.  This time it took 3 and half hours against their estimate of 2 and a quarter (and we have shaved 20 minutes off at the start by not rolling under that first electric fence and taking the proper route).  A family with children could not have walked the walk.  I could not have done the walk on my own with dog, neither could Two Brains.  The farmer in question is in my opinion odious.  We have since reported him.  He will be visited by the Gendarmerie because what he has done is illegal.  He should, in my opinion, be made to pay back the Tourist Board all the money they have expended in putting up stiles, their lovely information points, the time they have taken to make this walk what should be a great taste of the paysage de Cézallier.

But do the walk we did.  I shan’t do it again.  I’m stubborn but perhaps I’m not stupid after all.  The gun-shots were off-putting the fences just plain unkind.  We did however, as we arrived back at the velorail station having walked the last of the walk up the railway tracks like a pair of bedraggled gold prospectors, do the victory dance and have a group hug.  Well you would, wouldn’t you?


The Bean runs the last half kilometre along the sleepers

The story of Landeyrat (or Launderamat as we hilariously Christened it in our efforts to keep up our spirits on the walk) does not end there.  The following Friday (Halloween as it happened) we met our great friends to give the children a birthday treat – two of them have birthdays in Late October and November and we wanted to do an outing rather than just buy them more toys.  We booked tickets for the velorail and arrived at 10:00 to take our carriages for an hour and a half spin down the tracks.  6 kilometres there and back and the last but one day of the season.  The sun duly shone and we took our instructions (I got told off by the lady for not concentrating on her words) and set off down the tracks.  Velorails are my new favourite mode of transport.  Big enough for four, two pedalling and two passengers you potter down the track to a given point where you turn your car on a simple devise that lifts and spins with the aid of ones bodyweight ready to go back the other way.  Ours was the shortest option – the youngest child being just 4 years old, this was plenty and took us to a lovely cascade near Allanche which we had been to before.  We sat in the sun, took pictures, ate biscuits from Hawaii and variously sketched or stared into the crystal waters for tiny fishes.  Tranquility itself and blissful this place figures in Le Hobbit:  Le retour de roi de Cantal which is the sequel to ‘Lord of the Rings – made in Cantal’ two brilliant spoofs made by a young Cantalien and funded by the Tourist Board.

Raymond who is a Special Commendant in the Gendarmerie (in other words he is not a full time Gendarme but rather like a high ranking Special Policeman in the UK) told us that the reason for the sign saying ‘no swimming’ hanging above the very shallow water (no more than a foot deep) is that a Dutch youth jumped off the top of the waterfall and broke both legs and his pelvis.  His parents sued because there was no signage.  So this lovely place has to have a ridiculously obvious sign to warn others against being imbecillic.  The judge, incidentally told them to get lost and ruled against any compensation.  We passed a lovely interlude and then velorailed back to the station – harder this way … it was uphill.  I would highly recommend a velorail outing – you can do much longer ones and it is great fun.  However, it turns out that with monotonous regularity there are incidents.  People managing to pull the cars off the tracks, turning it over when they are turning it around, throwing rocks at cattle, getting their fingers or toes caught.  This was why the lady had told me off – they need to be sure that people have heard all the instructions.  As an advice, I would suggest that they make a cartoon crib sheet and give it to every hirer before they set out.  It would be a real shame if something happened to close them down.  There seems no end to peoples stupidity.  Me – I’m happy to be just stubborn and I am glad that I didn’t just give up on Landeyrat Laundermat because our morning on the velorail was the greatest fun – it would have been stupid not to!

PS:  Before it all, I  had photographed a name that made me smile on a pair of great oak barn doors in the village … Diabolo – perhaps I should have taken the hint!


Diabolo ….