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.
My spouse, who I generally refer to as ‘The Husband with Two Brains’ or HB² lived in Grenoble throughout the 1980s and regularly used to say to himself when he looked out of the window of his house that he must never take the view for granted because one day he wouldn’t be there any more. I feel exactly the same way. I love this place, experience it as the most natural of alignments as though I was born to be here and having the mountains so close by to explore freely and at will has been the greatest of gifts. One day this time will simply be a memory, as indeed will be every moment of this little life I lead, but surely the silver lining is that I had this time, that I was granted the rare delight of living here, and the opportunity to get out whenever I want to and explore the other-worldly delights that such a naturally stunning place affords free of any charge.
The picture was taken in les Alpes Belledonne last summer. It was an eerily beautiful day …. by turn brightest bluest sky with flouncing little fluffs of low cloud and a sudden mantilla of mist lending an ethereal atmosphere to the sturdy peaks and an irridescent sheen to the water. It was unforgettable, I hope … for who knows if I will always have the gift of easily bringing memories forwards. Who knows how motheaten my mind may become and how many moments will simply be lost like so many fragile bubbles too delicate to do anything but pop and fragment into the ether of my psyche, that curious morass of matter weightily wedged in my skull.
PS: The title is from The Cure’s song ‘Out Of This World’ which instantly popped into my still vaguely functioning brain when I saw the challenge. I can only hope that I will always remember how it feels to be this alive because I know that I am prosperous indeed. I chose the clip simply because it was shot in Nyon which is not far from here just over the border in Switzerland on Lac Genève.
My first husband went to see The Cure in Amsterdam in the same era as HB² was living in Grenoble first time round. He secured himself a fine viewpoint in front of everyone but regrettably failed to realise that he was standing precisely on the spot where the safety barriers would rise out of the floor as the show began. As Robert Smith, wax faced and angsty with his extra-long pullover sleeves all ready to flop foppishly at his thighs as he performed, took to the mic, the aforementioned husband that would be for a while, was raised almost messianic in front of him …. I believe the stunned expression on the artist’s face was worthy of one witnessing something quite out of this world …..
When we look back at it all as I know we will You and me, wide eyed I wonder… Will we really remember how it feels to be this alive?
And I know we have to go I realize we only get to stay so long Always have to go back to real lives Where we belong Where we belong Where we belong
When we think back to all this and I’m sure we will Me and you, here and now Will we forget the way it really is Why it feels like this and how?
And we always have to go I realize We always have to say goodbye Always have to go back to real lives
But real lives are the reason why We want to live another life We want to feel another time Another time…
Yeah another time
To feel another time…
When we look back at it all as I know we will You and me, wide eyed I wonder… Will we really remember how it feels to be this alive?
And I know we have to go I realize we always have to turn away Always have to go back to real lives
But real lives are why we stay For another dream Another day For another world Another way For another way…
One last time before it’s over One last time before the end One last time before it’s time to go again…
Imagine for a moment what it might be like if every single day were just the same as the one before and the ones to come stretching endlessly ahead taunting with their refusal to give any hope. No light at the end of the tunnel, treated like an object to be scuttled past hurredly by those who prefer not to be tainted by the invisible plague you so clearly carry. To have the humiliation of having to beg for the odd coin from those same scurrying strangers. To have no roof, no bed, no blankets. To be reliant on a bundle of stinking rags and decaying cardboard to bring some warmth whatever the season and including the biting depths of winter. To have no clue if the ache in your belly might be assuaged at any point today by some sort of meagre nourishment. To wear the cloak of invisibility simultaneously with the suit of shame by the crowds that fix their gaze anywhere but at you, assuming as they do that somehow you deserve to be where you are. In the gutter.
My friend, actually HB²’s oldest friend, Gee often remarks that we are all of us ever two steps from the gutter. There but for the grace of something or other. There we could be. Gee and I have both faced a future with nothing. Possessions sold for puny pickings in a seemingly pathetic attempt to keep our battered boats floating. Both of us fell hard. At different times and neither knowing the other. I can assure you it is levelling and I suspect far too many of you have similar stories.
Homelessness is a cause close to my heart and I wanted to do something tangible at Christmas. Having signed up for the big Christmas Eve surprisingly baudy bash for the old and alone, I was niggled by the notion that what I had intended to do was something of value to those who are sleeping rough. This city has good systems in place to aid les sans abris (homeless). Very very good, but there are still those who have no place to go. So I took the money that I would have spent on presents for the family and I bought the makings of care packages. I researched the subject thoroughly and some of what I found was quite shocking. There were several articles that cautioned me against doing what my heart screamed was the right thing for fear of causing offence. Don’t misunderstand me, I entirely agree that swooping down like an evangelising buzzard wearing a judgemental halo and a self-righteous expression would be offensive, but given that we are often urged not to give money for fear of perpetuating drugs or alcohol abuse, it begins to feel as though there is a danger that people are being given the ultimate get-out via the interweb, the excuse to do nothing at all. Being a bolshy bird, I ignored the advice, took note of the various lists that seemed to make sense and sallied forth to the shops to buy what I could afford. Gloves, socks, chocolate, granola bars, toothpaste and brush, liquid soap, wet wipes, tissues – there was more but I don’t want to bore you with my shopping list. I wrapped them with the care I would put into any Christmas gift which is not to say they were exactly elegant but that the thought was evident.
On Christmas morning, surprisingly spruce from the night before, The Bean and I set out to the places we knew we would find those whose celebration had not started and was not expected to. I sat with each in turn, some petted the dog, some were deeply suspicious, some less so. I talked to them. I let them talk to me. We are, after all, simply humans and even though my French can still be less than polished when speaking to strangers, the fact is that decency and kindness disolve barriers.
One of those I sat with, I sit with regularly. He calls me ‘Princesse’ or rather he mostly calls me Princess, occasionally I am promoted to ‘la reine’ (the Queen). His story is this: he had it all – wife, children, good job. He worked very hard at his job and often worked late and away. She had an affair and asked for a divorce. He preferred that she keep their house for the sake of his children. New man moved into his old house and his ex wife and his children had a new life, a life that he didn’t figure in. He began to feel increasingly alienated from his children. He became depressed and began to drift at work. He lost his job. He was unable to pay his ex-wife child support so she stopped him for seeing his children. He turned to drinking and his alcoholism spiralled out of control. He spent his rent money on booze and soon he lost his roof. It’s a simple and achingly familiar tale. It’s a tale that should resonate with us all because I promise you that only one thread of our fragile lives has to unravel and we can find ourselves sitting next to my friend begging for the money to feed a habit that blanks out the bitterness of reality. I met him once in the local Intermarché buying groceries – he was armed with his food tokens and was horrified to see me. I passed him by and pretended not to see him out of respect. This man did not want la princesse to see his circumstances even though he knows full well that I know he doesn’t live in a hunky dory homes and gardens centrefold house and that a roof other than a canopy of stars is an occasional luxury in his life. Respect. Along with decency and kindness, respect is the silent gift that we can give to all, no matter what their appearance.
All of those I gave parcels to were happy to receive and happy to chat for a few minutes. It was the least I could do. To remember that their faces are the faces of someone’s child, someone’s sibling, someone’s parent perhaps. Not at all the face of someone who has chosen to be faceless and passed over as we hurry about our frightfully important lives.
The picture was taken on my recent visit to my mother in England. I generally don’t take pictures of people, in fact I do everything in my power to avoid photographing strangers, feeling as I do that it is an invasion of privacy to snap and post on whatever Social Media forum is the flavour in favour. Actually in France it is an offence to publish an image of a person without their express permission. So my picture is a sheepy face in a flock. He is the odd one out and is standing apart from all the rest. It seems to fit what I am saying.
PS: Because there must always be a PS, the title comes from a song that I first heard as a young girl. It affected me then as it affects me now. It is touching and too familiar and no matter whether we are talking of London, as Ralph McTell is in the song, though he originally penned it as ‘Streets of Paris’, or another place entirely, the fact is that all these years later the scourge of homelessness has only got worse. And the very least we can do is to not be arrogant enough to imagine that our fortune is in some way an immunisation, to not judge but rather to be sympathetic and mindful that a kind word, a smile and indeed a coin, even if that coin gets spent on something we disapprove of, is far preferable to turning our stoney faces away and pretending we do not see. There but for the grace, so my beg is to please – be graceful.
Streets of London
Have you seen the old man In the closed-down market Kicking up the paper, With his worn out shoes? In his eyes you see no pride Hand held loosely at his side Yesterday’s paper telling yesterday’s news
So how can you tell me you’re lonely, And say for you that the sun don’t shine. Let me take you by the hand and lead you through the streets of London I’ll show you something to make you change your mind
Have you seen the old girl Who walks the streets of London Dirt in her hair and her clothes in rags? She’s no time for talking, She just keeps right on walking Carrying her home in two carrier bags.
In the all night cafe At a quarter past eleven, Same old man sitting there on his own Looking at the world Over the rim of his tea-cup, Each tea lasts an hour Then he wanders home alone
Have you seen the old man Outside the Seaman’s Mission Memory fading with the medal ribbons that he wears In our winter city, The rain cries a little pity For one more forgotten hero And a world that doesn’t care
This year my husband and I agreed to spend Christmas apart. Fear not, this is no dramatic announcement of impending divorce, but rather a reflection on the bloated airfares during the season of goodwill. In due time, I will tell of why we presently live one on either side of the Atlantic Ocean, but for now I will keep my council. It was my very own idea and I feel that it was a worthy protest, though I imagine it was inconsequential to the point of silence to those responsible for pumping up the prices with such unfettered glee.
Unwilling to risk being peeved by my own decision, I settled on a different solution to the celebrations than sitting in solitary splendour brooding over a meal for one all the while being eyed meaningfully by The Beady Greedy Bean.
In France, as in many other countries, la veille de Noël (Christmas Eve) is traditionally the biggest celebration. A large and lengthy meal with your loved ones culminates in the stealthy arrival of Père Noël (insert your own word for the snowy bearded wonder with grandeose paunch and snazzy white fur-trimmed scarlet suit) who soundlessly leaves gifts around midnight. It is a time of great joy and festivity for most but for others, to many others, it is a sad, solitary night, a time to dwell on past pleasures and the knowledge that there is little solace in the idea that the sun will rise again on the morrow. I speak of the old and alone. Those whom, for whatever reason, have no-one to care for them, those that subsist on tiny incomes and those that tend to be invisible to the masses. So I signed up to assist the Big Christmas Eve dinner laid on by a wondrous charity called Les Petits Frères des Pauvres. Translated as ‘Little Brothers of The Poor’ you may recognise the international federation it belongs to. If you don’t, I urge you to check it out for yourself. If you feel so inclined.
Donning the compulsary Bonnet dePère Noël, but fortunately no beard nor plumping suit, I had three seniors to collect from their homes, because I had also volunteered my car named Franck. I had one gregarious gentleman (aged a twinkling 98 if you please) and two lovely ladies (87 and 89 respectively). I delivered them to the venue, parked Franck and then joined the, incidentally mostly millennial, gang to serve dinner, play games, sing songs and greet Père Noël bearing gifts at midnight. Before we started and after we had seated our table after table of venerable guests there was a silence to remember those who fell serving in the Résistance. Grenoble is one of three cities and two villages awarded the Ordre de La Libération at the end of The Second World War and it is hard to describe how moving it was, that moment of respect standing head bowed amongst those who were directly touched by the indescribable bravery of those who refused to be cowed.
It was 2 a.m when I finally took my exhuberant and energetic charges home to their still silent dwellings. We had sung songs I knew and others I didn’t, played games that had to be explained to me and others that were comfortingly familiar and danced polkas they foot-perfect, I flat-footed. I feel tremendously priviliged to have been allowed to join in and to give beaming cheer where otherwise there would have been the bitter chill of loneliness in a world that too often scurries past rather than observing, for a moment, and perhaps acknowledging that, if we are deserving of conviviality and gaety and levity and simple companionship, then they surely are too. The waning years of human life should not label the bearer untouchable and past your sell-by date and fit to be cast into a metaphoric bin as though your odour is no longer tolerable.
I was motivated to share this moment by the WordPress Weekly Photo Challenge labelled ‘Silence’ and as ever you can view, if you feel disposed to, the far more meritorious entries to the gallery here.
The picture was taken in Massachusetts in February 2016. Of course the United States has seen far more than it’s share of snow this winter season and the fat lady is not ready for the final song yet. I imagine, amongst all the chaos and hardship such weather induces, there has been that sense of muffled stillness that snow produces. That softly muted quiet that I love. Because silence can certainly be golden. It can also be heartbreakingly heavy.
PS: The title is taken from C S Lewis that wisest, gentlest most considered of scolars. He said ‘I have learned now that while those that speak out about their misery usually hurt, those who keep silence hurt more’ … I recommend to everyone that, apart from the ‘Chronicles of Narnia’, you should read his work more widely and that his letters, published in several volumes to the many he corresponded with contain much wisdom, whatever your beliefs or views on faith and spirituality. That aside, I did, of course that morning in the woods, feel that I had stepped into the kingdom of Narnia.
There is a second part to my Christmas which I will chronicle separately in due course
And your bonus: The Tremeloes singing ‘Silence is Golden’. Although Frankie Valley and his Four Seasons recorded it first, this is the version as an English girl that I remember best.
I have a theory that we are each of us born an age which is our default real age our whole lives through. For example, I have known babies and toddlers like tiny old men and women and equally I have known consenting adults of several decades who are consistent in their infancy. My age, I am sure you are fascinated to know, is six.
At six years old I was taken on my first skiing holiday. We travelled on what used to be called ‘The Boat Train’ from London Victoria leaving at night, to Dover whence we boarded a ferry and then another train to take us across Europe.
I don’t remember much about the first train, I do remember my mother getting increasingly taut when my father refused to stop and ask directions despite having no clue where on earth he was going in a vast after dark London. I now know this is a cliché of male-female behavior but at six years old I merely thought it hugely entertaining that my mother was making hissing noises like a deflating bike tyre and gradually turning purple under her (entirely natural if you please) platinum blonde coiffeur, my father seemingly oblivious (which remained his constant default) to the combustable woman beside him. I suppose he must have found the station and parked the car and we must have taken the train to Dover but I don’t remember it at all. I remember a dead dog floating in the dock at Calais the following morning which instilled an unfair prejudice to the place that lasted over thirty years until I visited on a whim and found it to be not unpleasant at all.
We were greeted by our ‘courier‘ who was Austrian and called Ernst, had blonde hair, was very kind and thoughtful and whom I liked tremendously – in fact, if I close my eyes, I can still see him in his bright blue turtle neck which matched his eyes and jeans a shade or three darker. I imagine he was in his just-crowned twenties and so, to a six year old with an array of older male cousins, he fit nicely into a niche that I was comfortable with. For reasons I cannot discern I remained convinced that he was Norwegian for many years until, in my forties trotting out a memory or asking a vital and, til then dorment question or idly wondering if Ernst would still be waiting for me, I included this erroneous fact in my chatter and Mother corrected me. I admit to feeling momentarily crushed. I haven’t any idea why I thought he was Norwegian – I’m not even sure I really knew where Norway is. But he was so nice and smiling and friendly and he wore a large shiny badge loudly declaring the firm he worked for, all beguiling features to a six year old girl positively beyond effervescent with excitement. He ushered us onto the train and into our compartment which had, joy of joys, ‘couchettes’. This meant that at night we could turn the deep leather bench seats into bunk beds. Imagine the absolute heaven of that! I fancy we must also have slept on the ferry but sadly the shocking incident of the deceased dog at dawn eclipsed all else and I have no recollection at all of a cabin. After some while there was a mighty wheezing and blowing and the noise of metal being tapped upon metal and a scrunch and a lurch and off we groaned gradually, gradually gaining momentum. I can still remember the sound – not so much the rhythmic slide and clatter of the wheels on the rails but the chuff-puffing-puff-chuffing. Because we were being pulled by none other than a steam train.
I had only ever been conscious of one steam locomotive before (this was 1967) and that time we had been standing still and chill on the platform of our village railway station, my father, older brother, granny and I, solemly waiting with a crowd of others for Winston Churchill to pass on his final journey to burial after his funeral in London. He had died the day before my younger brother was born. I was four and even at that age I understood that this was momentous and I remember peeping through the steam and knowing the train was carrying a most important cargo and that it was extremely sad. Of course in my reality I was a very grown up six rather than the four any notional calender assumed me to be, which may account for this mature attitude to treating things with respectful gravity and deference.
This steam train, though had my now two year old brother aboard and he was extremely over-excited and equally over-tired. We were subjected to him repetitiously singing ‘I Did It My Way’ (not the whole song, just that line) having been so moved by Frank Sinatra, with whom my mother was smitten, singing on the television, at yet another final concert that wasn’t, when we were waiting in the night to get in the car and set off on our tremendous adventure. Bedtime at that age was six o’clock, except on Tuesday’s when I was allowed to watch ‘Bewitched’ meaning I retired at seven, so the fact that we were catching a night train in London meant we were up giddyingly late.
The journey passed as journeys do with cards and colouring and playing games that involved looking out of the window and spotting things to fit whatever theme my mother had invented in her desperation to keep us amused. Far too often, the bumptious brat would chime up with another chirpy chorus of ‘I Did It My Way’. At regular intervals, possibly to try and stem this vocal flow, Ernst would appear with refreshments in boxes or on trays depending on whether it was a cold or a hot repast. Having never eaten anything from a box before it was beyond exotic and things like cold chicken and salad took on a whole new allure that was positively glamourous to a six-year old. And those little packets of salt and pepper? Thrilling! I didn’t actually use them, you understand and I think I may have been thirty-five before I finally conceded that my little collection of identical squares was serving no useful purpose in my life. When they gave us warm croissants and other viennoisserie for breakfast a life-long and unquenchable obsession with pâtisserie was born.
Whenever the train stopped we were allowed to get off and walk around. I have no idea now where we stopped but it was quite often and it was quite fascinating … up until then I really had no notion that the French Miss Scrivener taught us at school was actually relevant, that people really spoke it. I had no idea that grown men might wear berets just like the one I had to wear to school. And all the while there was Ernst elegantly and seamlessly looking after us, making sure my nine-year old big brother who preferred not to be seen anywhere near his siblings didn’t wander off too far and that we were all back safely on the train in good time for the whistle to blow. I was certainly in love with him and convinced we would get married when I grew up by the time we got to what I imagine may have been Strasbourg. When it was night we slept, or tried to, with the increasingly bawdy toddler still shouting ‘I did it my way’ every time morpheous silently, smoothly snuck in with her soft arms ready for the fall. I decided that I positively did hate him and made a mental note to ask Daddy if it honestly was too late to send him back.
Eventually after what seemed like a month but was probably a day and a half, we reached Innsbruck where we had a break of some while before boarding our onward train. Looking back from the lofty position of having mothered several children, I imagine our mama must have been sleep-deprived and virtually desiccated by this point. Therefore, when she rattled into the cafeteria to extricate my father and I, he in the process of buying my first ever bar of Ritter Chocolate, a hallowed moment to be savoured, not interrupted, it is fair to say that brittle would be the word that described her mood best. She was shrill in her insistence that we were about to miss the train and dragging my older brother and carrying the tot she advanced purposefully towards it and, in fairness, it did indeed appear to be revving up for an imminent departure. My father didn’t question her (he knew his place) and we all boarded and sat neatly in rows. Even the blessèd bellowing boy was decorously calm and still. As the platform official raised his flag and puffed his whistle-blowing cheeks in readiness for the off, all hell let loose and suddenly there was the heroic Ernst banging on the window with one hand and yanking at the carriage door with the other. My mother stared at him glassily as though she had never seen him before in her life and my father didn’t notice at all. But I did notice. I noticed because, be reminded, this was my husband-to-be. I tugged coats and bounced and squeaked and eventually my parents collectively engaged their brains and peered at the apperition now almost glued to the window. He was mouthing something urgently. Father stood and pulled down the little openy bit of the window through which, if tall enough, or lifted by someone who was, you could wave to your adoring public on the platform as you departed. The now near hysterical Ernst managed to emit the word ‘Budapest’ before collapsing. My father gathered us all and shoved us through the door that had dangled Ernst, calling on all his skill as a one-time rugby player of some talent, before it slammed shut behind us, the platform official looked at this disgraceful tangle of gaping fools in disgust and blew his whistle, dropped his flag and the train departed for Hungary.
The actual train was barely a train. It was tiny and the seats were wooden slats but I was certain it had taken us to heaven. So high above the world, so clear the air, so blue the sky, so diamond sparkling the snow. Actually it took us up into the Tyrolienne Alps with which I fell in love as instantly and as deeply as I had with Ernst. The difference was that Ernst, I am ashamed to say, would be replaced many times over as my one object of undying love, but the mountains never will be. And neither will Ritter chocolate which remains a guilty pleasure to this day.
The picture was taken at Les Lacs Robert in the Alpes Belledonne, one of the three mountain ranges, two of them Alps, that surround Grenoble, where I live. We enjoy walking up there. The shot was taken in June. Today being January it is thick with snow and peppered with skiers. The Alps are relatively young mountains as you can tell from their sharp silouette, older mountains have been eroded more and are less craggy, more buxom in appearance. It was the Weekly Photo Challenge labelled ‘Weathered’ that prompted me to post the picture. The gallery is brimming with admirable entries, should you be minded to take a browse.
PS: The title comes from Jerome K Jerome, he who is best known for his wonderful ‘Three Men In A Boat’. This is taken from a short story, ‘The Passing Of The Third Floor Back’, a slightly strange and whimsy tale told with his usual acute eye for characterisation and wry humour. I recommend it if you have an idle half hour – it isn’t arduous nor long. In it, the main character, referred to throughout as ‘The Stranger’ says ‘Nothing, so it seems to me, is more beautiful than the love that has weathered the storms of life, the sweet tender blossom that flowers in the hearts of the young, that too is beautiful. The love of the young for the young, that is the beginning of life. But the love of the old for the old, that is the beginning of – of things longer’. Miss Devine responds ‘‘But are not all things beautiful?’ I find the observation of the stranger quite lovely and something one can only hope one is fortunate enough to attain.
To square the circle, when I saw that very first steam train taking the greatest of men to his final rest, I was on the station platform of the same village in which Jerome’s Three Men noted that ‘the reaches woo one for a sunny sail or for a moonlight row, and the country round about is full of beauty’. And there, I shall always be six.
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.
I imagine that we all feel that we have been hard done by, unfairly or unjustly treated at some point or, probably, several points in our lives. Whether or not we have credence for our cries is always a matter opinion and reason generally dictates, a matter of more than one point of view. Some will have much more valid laments than others. But wherever it registers on the Richter scale of righteousness, it stings. Today, as the world hoots and hollers about aggressive posturing that may or may not lead to a fearful battle, I ask you to think about those who really do, inarguably have it tough. Be it because they live in a warzone, because they are born into poverty in a place that has no opportunity for education and a free ride out or because they have been born in the wrong body by dint of their sex or sexuality, their race or their ability to use that body freely and efficiently without assistance, or simply that the body is worn out by so many years of use. Those. They are all around you if you look. Who are they? They are you but for the grace of that accident of birth that gave you a better chance. I am prompted to this by my savvy linguist friend at Zipfs Law who is currently in Guatemala interpreting (as he has every year of the last five) for Surgicorps International. He does it because he can. It’s as simple as that. I was moved to give a little to help. Really it was a very little. This is what he wrote to me:
“Osyth, thank you so much. Your donation pays for a complete surgical pack. To give you an idea of some of the surgeries that we did yesterday: reconstruction of a hand for a teenager who I’ve seen every one of the five years that I’ve been coming here, as it’s a complicated surgery that has to be done in stages; removal of a mass on the right wrist of a woman whose job involves writing with a pen all day, and who therefore was losing the ability to support herself in a country in which there is no such thing as unemployment insurance, or disability support for people who can’t work; repair of a cleft lip for a kid who otherwise would have been unlikely to find a spouse, in a country in which your only social support net is your family… Your support is really making a contribution to these people’s lives.”
Levelling. Horribly levelling. If Guatemala seems a long way away I can guarantee you there is someone right under your nose who could do with your kindness. Give it a go, for Blanche Dubois was not alone in her reliance on the kindness of strangers. Pablo Neruda, champion of Chile wrote reams and reams and dazzling reams on the plight and struggle of his own people. The woeful disgrace is that these decades later, it applies to so many in this ever-smaller earth place of ours. I give you Neruda’s ‘Mountain and River’ to take to your heart and ponder who might benefit from your act of kindess today. My pledge to Neruda many moons ago, when I first read this poem and imagined myself his little red grain of wheat, was that I would accept his eloquent, searing call to arms. So long as I draw breath I will keep that promise;
The Mountain And The River
In my country there is a mountain. In my country there is a river.
Come with me.
Night climbs up to the mountain. Hunger goes down to the river.
Come with me.
Who are those who suffer? I do not know, but they are my people.
Come with me.
I do not know but they call to me And they say to me: “We suffer.”
Come with me.
And they say to me: “Your people, your luckless people, between the mountain and the river, with hunger and grief, they do not want to struggle alone, they are waiting for you, friend.”
Oh you, the one I love, little one, red grain of wheat, the struggle will be hard, life will be hard, but you will come with me.
I’m sure I should be quoting Thoreau since this picture was snaffled on Cape Cod last Autumn. You can indeed stand there ‘and put all America behind you’. And it would be highly appropriate. Thoreau spoke much sense that resonates today. If you let it.
Instead though, I am going to tie this to one of my favourite poems. One I learned to heart so I could whisper it secretly under the sheets after lights-out when I was a just-teen and captivated by the idea of love.
I defy you not to be enchanted by it ..
The fountains mingle with the river
and the rivers with the ocean,
The winds of heaven mix for ever
With a sweet emotion;
Nothing in the world is single
All things by a law divine
In one spirit meet and mingle,
Why not I with thine? –
See the mountains kiss high heaven
And the waves clasp one another;
No sister-flower would be forgiven
if it disdained it’s brother;
And the sunlight clasps the earth
And the moonbeams kiss the sea;
What is all this sweet work worth
If thou kiss not me?
Percy Bysshe Shelley
PS: Those that kindly and patiently follow me, may relax knowing that I have settled in my new temporary nest and that finally, after some epic shenanagins with local internet providers, I am back in my saddle and ready to hit you with more half-baked drivel. I can actually feel the crackling excitement in the wings. In the meantime, I present this to the scrumptuous gallery of offerings for the weekly photo challenge this week asking for
Imagine if you will a real-life, modern-day Saint Francis – not all the high-born and father didn’t like his name stuff, but the animals part. The friend to all creatures, critter-whisperer. That Saint Francis. Well, here’s the thing. I know this man. This latterday guardian of all living things. All living things except humans which might be construed as a crucial difference between this man Frank and the Assisian original.
In fact Frank is of the opinion that there are far too many of us human varmints jostling and barging one another through life, and that instead of dwelling on our own selfish needs we need to protect our planet for those that have no voice and no means to halt the uninvited destruction of their world. I imagine his sentiments are perceived at best as highly eccentric and at worst with a great deal of suspicion by many. But much of what he quietly iterates resonates with me.
I had heard much of Frank before I met him. I knew that he had a squirrel whom he had nursed back from injury and who he had recently discovered was in fact Josephine rather than Joseph. She has the run of his backyard now that she is fit and hale again but during her long convalescence had a tree, a full sized tree, in the house to be her natural squirrelling self in. And for the avoidance of doubt, the house is a modest house, in an ordinary street not a gaspingly vast mansion. She is a cared for and nurtured squirrel and he files her claws regularly since she is not scampering around a wide-open space as she would have been had she not succumbed to a speeding car in the particular suburb of Boston that she lives in. His next door neighbour is a Dental Surgeon and he has asked him to make braces for Josephine’s teeth since he worries that her fang-angle is becoming an issue. Not cosmetically, you understand but rather in terms of her ability to gnaw gustily. Excited to meet this tiny mammal saviour, I had rehearsed my appropriate conversation opener. Donning my most charming and inclusive smile, I commented that I had heard all about his squirrel and that in fact my mother is called Josephine. He stared hard and with undisguised mild alarm and softly murmured ‘Your mother? Is a squirrel?’ Seldom lost for words, my powers of pithy response evaporated and the previously alluring smile froze unbecomingly on my nonplussed face giving me a distinct air of rampantly and irreversibly imbecilic. It turns out that there really is no comeback from the disquieting visual of your mother become rodent.
Most people discourage mice in their homes. Frank calls them ‘the little people’ and actively ENcourages them by leaving all their favourite treats in prominent places. He doesn’t shoo them off the table but rather invites them to share his plate. I do not have a word powerful enough to describe what a peace-loving soul Frank is. Strange certainly but bloodless and I feel remarkably tranquil simply writing of him.
Frank is companion and protector to all animals. He is their true and unwavering friend. He does not do this in the name of anybody’s God but simply because he can and he wants to. Surely that is what true friendship should be based in. Love, decency and kindness. This little traipse into the world of Frank is prompted by the Weekly Photo Challenge dubbed Friend. You can potter through the superabundance of delights here, and in honour of Frank and Josephine here are two plumptuous Squirrels partaking of the feasts I put out daily, when I’m in residence, for their delectation in our Massachusian backyard.
PS: The title is stolen from Zeffirelli’s 1972 film of the life of Francis of Assisi, ‘Brother Sun, Sister Moon’ which in turn come from Saint Francis’ own praises for all creatures written when he was very sick himself. I reproduce a little excerpt here because, despite not being of his faith, I am of the belief that a beautiful piece of writing should be celebrated simply for being a beautiful piece of writing, not tainted nor tarred with prejudice, nor owned exclusively by one self-elected sector of society. Simply embraced and cherished. Like friendship.
Praise be to Thee, my Lord, with all Thy creatures, Especially to my worshipful brother sun, The which lights up the day, and through him dost Thou brightness give; And beautiful is he and radiant with splendor great; Of Thee, most High, signification gives.
Praised be my Lord, for sister moon and for the stars, In heaven Thou hast formed them clear and precious and fair. p. 153
Praised be my Lord for brother wind And for the air and clouds and fair and every kind of weather, By the which Thou givest to Thy creatures nourishment. Praised be my Lord for sister water, The which is greatly helpful and humble and precious and pure.
Praised be my Lord for brother fire, By the which Thou lightest up the dark. And fair is he and gay and mighty and strong.
Praised be my Lord for our sister, mother earth, The which sustains and keeps us And brings forth diverse fruits with grass and flowers bright.
And for your bonus, Donovan sings the title song he wrote for the movie:
‘Brother Sun and Sister Moon, I seldom see your tune – preoccupied with selfish misery’ ….
We might be minded to take that line to heart, do we think?
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.