Friday, 29 August 2008
The train was packed. Several people were standing in the aisles already. She stood there, a small, slight woman, with light brown skin and a clear complexion, black hair piled on her head, dark eyes, long earrings. Next to her was a girl of about ten and two small boys. She was talking to the man sitting next to me and I wasn't really paying attention. But their voices became louder, she was clearly insistent. So I began to listen. She was saying that she had reserved seats for her and her three children. The man sitting next to me, with his small son perched on his knee, said that she should see the contrôleur if she had any complaints. Their voices became raised. The man's was louder but hers was penetrating and unyielding. I realised that she was referring not just to the seat the loud-voiced man was defending, but mine too, as well as two on the other side of the aisle. I asked to see her tickets. The reserved numbers were clearly written there, whatever the man might say. No question about it then, I stood up. The man next to me went on arguing, but eventually moved his knees just enough to let me squeeze past. I stood in the aisle, along with several other people.
The couple in the seats on the other side of the aisle do not seem to understand French. Il faut les quitter! insists the woman, looking at them very directly. The couple avoid her gaze, look at each other, say something I don't catch, the woman shakes her head slightly, then gazes out of the window. The man, who wears glasses and looks to be in his early fifties, abruptly says quite loudly 'shut up!' This doesn't faze the woman with the reserved seats, she possibly doesn't understand it. Since they clearly know some English I try to explain to them that she had reserved these seats, and paid extra for the reservations. Strangely, the couple do not look at me either. Still without looking at me the woman then says there's normally a ticket on the back of the seat, to indicate its reserved.
Non, jamais, says a young woman with two small children, sitting in front of the seat that had so recently been mine. The couple, who I guess from their accent are Dutch, disagree with this.
The two small boys have squeezed themselves into my vacated seat. The contrôleur appears at the end of the carriage. He is greeted by several raised voices. But he is, surprisingly to me – not very helpful to the reserved seats woman. Someone makes a remark about his 'bulot', to the effect that he is not doing his job. Clearly, this is a supporter of the reserved seats woman. The contrôleur calls out, who's saying I'm not doing my job? And he's trying to sound officious but you can tell that he's clearly exhausted from battling his way through several packed carriages and doesn't really have the stomach for an argument. The vociferous young woman supporter has no hesitation about repeating what she's said. The contrôleur squeezes past us, and has nothing to reply to the advocating young woman taking the part of Madame la réservée. He is clearly not going to prise people out of their seats, but Madame la réservée is not giving up either. She points at the seats occupied by the man and the Dutch couple. The woman with the two children repeats that its not fair, they should give them up. The man who was sitting next to me eventually does get up. But the Dutch couple refuse to look anyone in the eye. The contrôleur is looking a little wild eyed by this time, turns his back and continues pressing past more bodies, which incline over others, to let him through. Madame la réservée raises her voice, although I can't make out what she is saying, as several people are speaking at the same time. Allez en première classe, the contrôleur throws over his shoulder.
But that's right at the other end of the train, Madame la réservée says, why should I go there, with my children and my luggage, squeezing past all the people standing up in all these carriages, when my seats, the ones I paid to reserve, are right here!
The contrôleur's grey uniform recedes, vanishes among the press of bodies, but he repeats – allez en première classe. But she is adamant, she is going nowhere.
Well, says the young woman with two children sitting in front of my ex-seat, moi alors, je vais en première, si elle ne veut pas.
And she stands up, starts gathering up her things.
Do you think we can? I say doubtfully.
Mais oui, bien sur, she says.
So she organizes her children and her things and they move out, I follow her, another young woman follows me and we all begin the long passage, moving past the people standing in the aisles. Madame la réservée moved into the seats vacated by the young woman and her children, so they now all had seats. The journey through the twelve carriages seemed endless. As well as the people standing in the aisles, there were also people squeezed into the little passages between the carriages, some standing, some sitting on the floor. Luggage is piled on the floor, a white dog lies on the floor. And so we make our way through the carriages and finally arrive in the first class seats. I sit down thankfully, stretch my legs in the extra leg room.
P is giving me a lift to the station to catch the train back from Rouen to Paris. We should have left the house ten minutes earlier but P says - Its OK I have a feeling you will catch the train. He has a feeling and I too have a feeling but it isn't certainty, it's uncomfortable, and difficult to trust. It's rush hour and the traffic hardly moves. P swings the van into another lane. He drives it past a stationary truck and the window bangs the side of the truck. I flinch. It's fine he says, ne t'inquiète pas. I take deep breaths.
Now when you get to the station he says, the platform numbers will be displayed on a screen.
Yes yes I think, I know this.
Do not waste a minute, just go straight there.
I won't have a minute to waste I think, there's only about two minutes left before the train leaves but I will have to pause to read the screen.
P screeches up to the station. I grab my bags, lean over to kiss him, stumble out of the van and start to run to the entrance, turn back to wave. My trousers are too loose for running in and I have to hold them up with one hand. Once inside, I see the platform number clearly displayed, it's platform 1, but I cannot find out where to go to reach it. Arrows pointing in various directions to platforms 2, 3 and 4, but where to go for platform 1? Waste valuable seconds going in the wrong direction, then doubling back. One minute to go. Arrive at platform, stick ticket in composter machine. It refuses it. Tournez a l'autre sens it says. Fuming I turn the ticket round, the machine clicks, I run onto the platform but it's empty. I ask someone about the Paris train. It's late they say. But only a minute later a train pulls in. I get on, plenty of seats here. Ah success! But there's an announcement of the stations the train will stop at, as usual almost impossible to make out what's being said, but I'm sure it does not mention Paris. I ask another passenger if this is the Paris train, no he says, it's going to Le Havre. Leap off. Another train arrives. Is this the Paris train I ask someone, no they say, it leaves from the platform opposite. And points. A different platform? How was I supposed to know this? I go to the next platform and see from the illuminated sign that the train waiting here really is going to Paris. Ah relief! I get on the train. Then an announcement says, all passengers for Paris get off and see the contrôleur. So I get off, along with many others, who are crowded around two contrôleurs, and I've arrived too late, I can't hear what he is saying so I ask the silent one, and he explains that yes, you can get that train but it won't get into Paris till 8.10. The other train, the original one, is delayed and they don't seem to know when it will arrive. It was supposed to leave at 5.58 and reach Paris just after 7.00. But this train is definitely going to Paris? I ask. Yes. So I get back on. Better a slow train than an indefinite one.
Paris morning, late summer. The traffic sounds from the street, coming in the open window. The klaxons of impatient drivers have their own kind of language – the tiny taps, almost like a polite cough, the short, bright ones, like a greeting, short double ones, like a willingness to converse, and long plangent ones with a lugubrious and deeply felt frustration behind them, a deep annoyance at all that impedes their forward progress.
The sunlight drawls and hesitates, comes out to play, and then is pulled apart like loose wool, by the tribes of clouds, some thin and indistinct, others deep and massing, biblical and serious. So that both sighs and laughter travel across the sky.
The leaves of the chestnut trees are crimped around the edges with a glorious burnt russet shade, which make the little pale green spiked balls of the chestnut covers, stand out against the dark green and russet gold of the leaves. Other trees, that look like elm, have glints of yellow gold like lodged sunlight, little unexpected flickers of light among the smooth and patterned greenness of their leaves.
My days are also flecked with light and shade, patterns drift and freeze and waver across the polished wooden floor, and over the books I'm reading, lying there.
“Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura....” (Dante)
“Mauro lui avait dit la vérité. Rome était inondée de soleil.” - (Ornela Vorpsi)
“[to] feel for a moment free of the shadow falling between the idea - or word – and the thing itself” (Harriet Rubin)
“sunlight through stained glass
fragrance of oranges”
“Heart, since you embraced the mysteries,
you have become useless for anything else” – (Rumi)
A red rose seller walking down the avenue d'Ivry wears a red jacket with a red hood.
The leafy metal of the balcony is art nouveau. Its shadow is art insolite.
Thursday, 14 August 2008
St Antonin Noble Val
JR heads east to Germany and I spend two days in Paris. I leave S's apartment on the avenue d'Ivry and walk up to the Gare d'Austerlitz, board the train for Caussade. I buy a newspaper which I'm glad of, for the book I've brought to read turns out to be rather pedestrian. The sun shines fulsomely all day, and its still deliciously hot when I arrive in Caussade. I head for the road to St Antonin, think some positive thoughts, and stick out my thumb. Three or four cars go past in as many minutes. Then one pulls over. A gallant Frenchman, you see, they still exist. A friendly youngish man, cheerful, he smiles a lot and yes, he's going in my direction, not quite as far as St Antonin, but he can take me to the turnoff. He's on holiday, he's going to some event called Le Fil de l'Eau, which is about the history of the past century. He is determined to practice his English, as he says he once spent a week in England, doing a language course. I slip a few English phrases in, to encourage him. After a while I tell him I'm Scottish which immediately and predictably brings an enthusiastic response. Since he's not in a hurry, he decides to go out of his way and take me all the way to St. Antonin.
Memories come back as I walk along the narrow cobbled streets. The newsagents, an art gallery, a shop selling all kinds of fancy soap, the main square, with its crowded café seats, the agence immobilier. P's house has a few cobwebs outside the door and I make a mental note to dust it down. Open the door into the kitchen, and put down my bags, with relief. Open the shutters, open the kitchen window, to let the warmth in and the air circulate. I've arrived.
The first day's 'petite randonnée' started at the bridge over the river L'Aveyron, and climbed up to the Roc d'Anglars - the white rocky cliffs opposite St. Antonin - taking a tree shaded path. There were all kinds of different butterflies, black and white, lapis blue, russet brown.
When a russet brown one landed on the path it was utterly indistinguishable from the reddish stones. And the ones that were sky blue as they fluttered around, disappeared completely when they landed on one of the white flowers, almost cream coloured, with long thin stalks and round bursting balls of flowers, like fireworks which have just gone off. The outsides of the wings of the sky blue butterflies are creamy yellow with faint bubbly markings so that it is almost indistinguishable from its creamy flower hosts, with their straggly and untidy hair. So the russet ones were on the path with reddish stones, the black and white ones on the flat plateau where the stones were whitish and grey and veined with dark seams, and the lapis blue and creamy ones clearly lived among the white flowers with the wild hairdos. Not so much adapted as reciprocal. I wonder if we do the same, even if unconsciously? I feel sure we do. We blend in with the land, we adopt its postures and its slopes, its vegetation colours, its roughness, its dryness, its temperature and its patterns. The land moulds and shapes us smooths and whittles us, turns us into its own.
You don't need the church bells to tell you its midday. The sacredness of that hour is announced by the sudden quietness in the streets. The neighbours are no longer talking to each other, children are no longer playing outside, all the shops are closed and a solemn silence reigns. C'est l'heure du diner. A pigeon coos. You can hear the houses breathing. A fly that's come in the open window, careering around. Then falling silent, once it's found its way out again.
This street is so narrow that there's only just room for a car to pass. As the street actually ends up in the river, (though there is a possibility of turning right before you do) there's not much traffic. But there are tourists who walk past, yes even in this hour between midday and one o'clock. As the kitchen is on the ground floor, they pass only inches away from my window, and sometimes they look inside. It surprises me how quickly I've adopted a nonchalance in the face of this blatant curiosity. At first I felt as vulnerable as a snail whose shell had turned colander, but it no longer bothers me and sometimes I don't even register it any more. I wonder if this habituation is at the root of the colouration of the butterflies as reddish brown as dead leaves and stones, or the blue ones whose wings are straw coloured on the outside.
This morning I heard a loud American voice outside the window. He was a tour guide, informing his tour that this façade was typical 15th century, and further down there used to be a small leper's colony. Oh really? I think, peering down the street at the ex-leper's colony. Maybe that's why it so conveniently ends up in the river.
We get a little lost in London, miss the turnoff for the South Circular. Double back, find it, and eventually reach Clapham, where JR is leaving the sitar with a friend. He doesn't want to take it all the way to Germany, where he's giving a workshop, but he'll need it afterwards for a gig in England. The sitar is dropped off and we find our way out of London again, head for Dover. The ferry is a fast one, rather small, with two forward prows like the horns of some snail-like creature, testing the waters it's about to sail through.
Not much more than an hour later, we're in France. The roads are empty, there's an enormous vista of green fields all around and the evening sun throws long thin shadows of plane and poplar trees, over the fields. The landscape undulates, the shadows are pencils, threads, dark lines that go on and on, find the horizon and keep going. Something about these lines, the way they dip and curve with the land, the way they stretch and shiver, turn into snakes, turn over, bask in this long evening light, takes me with them, horizontal shadows grow in me too and I am stretched over the hills, the thundering motorway traffic, the narrow crowded little island left far behind. We expand into this enormous evening light, into the green waves of hills, all empty and quiet, like being released from a tormented madness, into a blessed peace. The hills dip and rise, dip and curve slightly, rained on with that special light of late evening, that seems to fold a little, to follow the landscape's curves, folds like something almost material, woven out of light with slender shadow seams.
Have you noticed I say, how as soon as one is on the mainland of Europe, the horizon becomes much much bigger? It expands so far that you think that you can see almost to where the land ends, almost to the sea?
JR has not noticed. He is about to denounce this as a perceptual illusion, I can tell by a kind of stiffness he emanates into the air around him.
It's to do I say with an air of authority, with the physical landscape, which extends or contracts our perception. On any large land mass, Europe, Asia, America, you can simply see further. On an island, it's like being in a room, you can't see further than the walls, can you? You can only see what's in front of you, you are consumed by detail, which is fine for arguing existence's finer points, for following the patterns of needlework or Fair Isle knitting designs or tattoo patterns of Pictish woad but here on the mainland, your eyes can stretch themselves, they're not confined any longer they can extend to their full capacity and its such a relief, like being able to stretch your body after being in a confined space.
I can tell by the air going soft, murmuring a little, turning choppy like the waves of La Manche, that JR has decided not to enter into an argument that he realises cannot be won. Instead, he approaches from an oblique angle that is neither agreement nor opposition.
How is it he says, that in Cornwall the sky looks closer?
Because it is closer, I say.
But there's nothing in the sky, its empty, right?
I explain that the sky is not empty, that there is an atmosphere around the earth, a blanket of soft sussurant something, that we give names to, such as oxygen, hydrogen, carbon dioxide, nitrogen etc. And that this atmosphere is closer nearer the poles (I'm not sure that this is true, but it fits my argument), so that the further north in the northern hemisphere you go, the sky is closer. Hence blue-er. (Well, that is true. Look at those pale pale southern skies, where the sky is so very far away, and the clouds as distant as memories of childhood).
He accepts this argument.
And we drive on through the evening light, the shadows slender as the seams between thoughts, inky lines like the troughs between waves, the landscape's copperplate handwriting.
The western sky grows pink, the cloud rafts dusty purple. We stop in Montreuil sur Mer, whose sea is entirely imaginary, a whiff of salt only, sliding along the banks of its green river.
Wednesday, 13 August 2008
En route to France
On the 7th August JR and I left his 'dreaming spires' (he lives in a converted church) at 5.30 in the morning. The new upper part of his dwelling is made of clean new sweet-smelling wood, and it's on a level with the little windows, divided up into three upper sections and one lower one. So you can see straight outside to the tops of the trees by the river, and over to the hills beyond. There are no sounds except for the calling of birds. This upper level has only recently been created. Before, it was simply the roof, inaccessible and only vaguely seen, the windows grimed with decades of dust, dirt, the home of deceased flies and busy spiders. But with the building of an upper level, the windows were cleaned (I helped to do this) and now you have this spectacular view out over trees, water and hills. Not just the view, but the atmosphere of peace, tranquillity, of a special refuge, which I surmise is because, when this place was a church, people's aspirations would have lifted upwards, and hovered by the windows, and lodged in the roof beams, settled there, high above the meanness and pettiness of Everyday.
It had rained heavily all the day before. To reach this remarkable dwelling, one has to follow a path from the road, which goes over a bridge that crosses the river, and walk several metres through tall grass. A narrow swathe of path has been cut through the grass. When we leave early the next morning, we have too many things to carry in one trip, our bags and backpacks, a guitar and sitar, so JR piles them in a wheelbarrow. A few bats are out late, dart past the doorway in the grey murky dawn. The river has swollen enormously and burst its banks, turning the nearby field into a lake. The church is built on a slight elevation, but the water is very close, another metre and it would enter the 'garden', the patch of grass at the front, surrounded by a railing. A grinning little gargoyle sits on the bench in front of the church, the household guardian.
And so we begin the long drive down through the corridor of England. At first the roads are quiet and empty. The first part of the motorway goes through the Lake District, passes between huge treeless hills, deep green from the rain, and as always, gives a sense of entering a very different territory, like a ritual passageway designed to engender humility in these scrawny beetle-like beings who scud past the mountain sentinels, in their buzzing metal carapaces, ignoring their beauty and sublimity, forgetful of tolls and the mind's high terraces, where some ancient sense of deity might be remembered and acknowledged. Just might be, in these echoing valleys.
And the high places of passage might also be remembered with nostalgia, once you've left them behind, and entered the plains, industrial, crowded with factories and houses, rows and rows of houses, streets falling away underneath the motorway flyovers, the lanes full of traffic, on and on, an endless flow of cars. We stop at services, change drivers, and the passenger dozes. The clouds have vanished, the sun is out, it's hot, and the dreaming passenger sees rose windows of colours and brilliant patterns, behind their closed eyelids.