A postcard from the seaside

Hoorah! In this, the final card I’m sending from France, you’ll be pleased to learn that we’re finally off to the seaside. It was a close run thing: first he wanted to go, then he didn’t, but now he wants to see the Camargue so, Saints Marie de la Mer, here we come. Of course, there’s some academic, rambling, preambling debate regarding the positioning of the apostrophe on the word ‘Maries’ to get out of the way before proceedings can commence. I point out that it’s the ‘saintes’ that are plural and not the ‘maries’; something I’m happy to do since he recently observed that I put the question mark in the wrong place in my literary attempts. What fun we two share.

There’s also another minor contretemps when, even before we’ve left Arles, – yes, we’re there again – the navigator is so busy talking, probably about the differences between English English and what he dares to call American English, that he fails to direct me to the relevant turn-off and we’re trapped on the auto-route to Nimes. He’s desperate to visit Nimes but I know his game and I find a hasty exit towards the swampland that is the Camargue.

I’ve already warned him about the mosquitoes and the fact that we’ll be safe as long as we’re out of the place before five o clock. Before then, there are flamingos and bulls and white horses to look for. Once, under some considerable pressure, I went horse riding in the Camargue with Barbara. Actually, the full Trowbridge contingent was present, along with my son and a pal of his. In the event, people kept dropping out, preferring, for some inexplicable reason, to sit in the bar at the stables. I asked for a horse that was on tranquilisers and some old nag was dragged out of the abattoir for me to sit on to the huge amusement of everyone, including the cowboys. How they roared. Well, if I can make someone happy … it was one of the best things I’ve ever done. I ask Russell if he fancies a spot of pony trekking. He looks as if he’s going to be ill and doesn’t even bother to answer me.

To my knowledge, there are no cloisters and no Roman ruins in Saintes Marie de la Mer. There is, however, a church and as we enter the town, I remark on the people on the church roof. What’s happening there then, I demand. He seems a bit perturbed but there’s no time to worry about it as I’ve spotted that it’s Market Day. We’re going to the market, I state with some force. He capitulates and I wander around happily examining the fridge magnets of the Maries. He’s covered the ground in about ten seconds and is heading for the church. I don’t mind going to this church. For a start, I’ve never been before. Further, this is the church built to commemorate the arrival of the Maries, and allegedly seventy others belonging to the entourage of Jesus, on the shores of Provence. However, before we can get inside, there’s an altercation.

Now, I don’t think Russell will be offended if I mention men’s jobs. Mostly, I like to think of myself as gender neutral when it comes to taking one’s turn. Nonetheless, on this holiday, there have been a few occasions when I’ve informed him he’ll have to deal with something or other because ‘it’s a man’s job’. In my lexicon, this refers to the repair of something that’s broken that I can’t be arsed to deal with. The first time it happened – probably a broken corkscrew – he said he’d never undertaken a ‘man’s job’ in his life. Well, you’re sixty now and you’re travelling with me; get over it. Anyway, outside the church, I was accosted by a particularly vicious looking gypsy who pinned a brooch of St Sarah on my dress which seemed immovable. Try as I might, I couldn’t remove the bloody thing. Russell moved forward, exhibiting a surprising display of macho threat, and she immediately tore off the emblem and scurried away. I don’t know which of us was the most embarrassed.

The church was fabulous. Wait, did I just say that? Icons to the left, icons to the right. A fantastic display of paintings that folk had presented over the centuries with the Maries in a floating boat saving the day. And downstairs, a full-sized model of St Sarah who’s the patron saint of gypsies. I loved it all so much that I was happy to accompany him up to the roof.

 

Pardon? I don’t know how this happened. One minute I’d parted with three euro, the next, I was overlooking the sea and the town. I took a snap of him and he took a snap of me. I sat down and watched as he slithered over the tiles. Then, he cleared off and I realised that I had to crawl the length of the roof alone in order to get back down again. I think this was the most upset I’d been with him on the whole holiday. I was rewarded with an absolutely superb lunch of seafood and pasta – possibly the best meal I ate in the whole two weeks. We were the only tourists in the joint which was full of French workmen. Even the chef came out to see whether we’d enjoyed our food. Russell – you’re forgiven.

On the way back, there was an opportunity to visit a nature reserve. I sort of wanted to and kind of didn’t: I was so hot and, yet again, full of molluscs. It was an absolute treat – flamingos and storks and egrets and, the best thing ever,

the ragondin. By the end of this day, we weren’t in the best of spirits having experienced way too much sun. But a dip in the pool and yet another bottle of the pink stuff, and all is well with the world.

 

I’m not doing any more of these postcards. But if you think our holiday was not what it might have been, I’d like to put you right. We are the original ‘odd couple’ but we had fun. We danced around each other a bit but I never wanted to be alone, nor wished for alternate company. It was a joy. (He doesn’t smile much).

 

 

 

 

A postcard from the past

There’s an interesting triangle of places to visit just outside St Remy, all within easy walking distance of each other. My American friend is beside himself with anticipation – we’re going to Glanum, a fortified town taken over by the Romans in 27BCE. I park under a tree on the lane that leads to the local sanatorium whereby Russell disembarks to study a pictorial sign which disturbs him greatly. He particularly dislikes the image of a fist clenching a hammer which is about to enter someone’s rear window. I am advised to move the car to somewhere less dangerous. He’ll wait in the shade. To be fair, he has a point: this looks like the very same hammer that smashed the rear window of last year’s hire car. The chauffeur moves the car and trudges back along the sweltering, dusty track to re-join the seasoned passenger.

First, we visit the mausoleum and triumphal arch – the latter being the oldest in France – which are situated on the other side of the road. Established Donald followers know this story only too well: local folk wandering up and down the road for eons, never bothering to question why these two antiquities might be thus situated. Poor old Vincent, busy painting views of Les Alpilles from the point where I originally tried to leave the car, without the slightest inkling that there was a whole Roman town between him and the mountains; let alone any idea that folk would soon be passing by with hammers. Even my companion, who knows everything about anything, and whom I’d previously primed like one of Vincent’s blank canvases, was astounded: ‘didn’t they think the arch was the entrance to somewhere?’ Je te l’ai dit mon ami, je te l’ai dit.

Following my astute advice, Glanum is our next port of call; in this searing heat, I don’t think it will be possible to remain standing in the place much later in the day. As it happens, the woman who collects the tickets we purchased three steps before advises us that the place will close for the remainder of the day at noon. Strange, I think, and think no more. Russell views the ruins and is positively orgasmic. Nice to have it to ourselves, I remark. Just then a crowd of three hundred schoolchildren appear noisily around the corner and he’s off; pushing and shoving his way through the unwelcome intruders. The stride has practically evolved into a sprint. But I thought you were an educationalist. Russell, I screech, you’re missing the well, but he’s gone, leaving only a cloud of Roman dust.

 

 

 

 

 

I love this place, probably for all the wrong reasons, and decide to try a few botanical snaps: random poppies juxtaposed against the ancient stones; that type of thing. Sometimes, I catch a fleeting glance of him, knocking children to the ground, but largely he’s lost in the midst of time. Eventually, I catch up with him by the sacred spring where he’s muttering about sewers. Then he’s off up the hill and I’m gasping for breath in his wake. Finally, we get back to the entrance to find the place crawling with gendarmes and a variety of police vehicles. Do you think there’s been a murder, I ask excitedly. He has lunch on his mind and, as usual, no interest in the quotidian. These academics are clever types but I sometimes feel a whole layer of life passes them by. Me, I’m just plain nosey and have to ask someone what’s occurring. A crime of passion, apparently. They’re filming the one and only episode of NCIS St Remy. Lovely.

We take our luncheon on the terrace of Villa Glanum, another old favourite of mine. Today, it’s a somewhat tired but, nonetheless, enchanting hotel. Once, it was the home of Alphonse Daudet, who sometimes pretended he was writing letters from a windmill in Fontvielle. Back in Blighty, I gave Russell a choice of bedtime reading: Daudet or Mistral. He chose the latter but I think he missed a trick. To my simple mind, Mistral is too arrogant whereas you learn a lot of social history from Daudet. But what do I know? Another time …

And so to St Paul Mausole, the sanatorium where Vincent placed himself after the disaster that was Arles and where he painted many of his most famous pictures. When I first came to these parts, I had little knowledge of or interest in Van Gogh, but you don’t have to be here long to realise how he captured the very essence of Provence. I’m pleased to report that my travelling companion has, at last, noticed this and threatens to return home and study the paintings of the genius. Personally, I’m just thrilled to be in Vincent’s garden with the lavender.

 

 

Another postcard from Arles

There aren’t too many tracks out of Rognonas and the one that leads to Arles is a road well-travelled. Mistral was up and down here like a fiddler’s elbow; largely on his way to Avignon, apart from his childhood travels to a hitherto unknown school at Frigolet. Russell doesn’t like Frigolet; claims it’s brash and tawdry or other suchlike adjectives that I’ve made a point of dismissing from my mind. It’s also, apparently, not old enough. Later, he’ll tell me he doesn’t like Mistral either. Ha! Guess what I’ve got for his birthday.

We seem to be passing along the Arles road so frequently these days that even my companion feels finally grounded so I make an unexpected left turn down the lane that leads to the perfume museum. Although I want to purchase some Eau de Violette, the main purpose of this detour is to visit the gardens which are cloaked in a myriad of bees and butterflies. It smells nice too. The place looks particularly lovely today as it’s still dressed in the dreamcatchers that were part of yesterday’s wedding decorations. We wander along, searching hopefully for Russell’s bride who, it seems, has already run away.

And after this, and a minor incident involving the front of the hire car and a large boulder, we traverse a few more kilometres along the D570 before taking another left turn to my favourite venue in Provence: Chapelle St Gabrielle. Reader, you don’t need me to tell you about this place: it appears so many times in Donald and also in The Road that Runs. I’m slightly anxious. I want Russell to love Provence but I especially want him to embrace this place and all its conspiratorial history. He’s off doing that striding business again and I’m just sitting and soaking the goodness. Then he’s back: ‘I’m sorry, but this can’t be your favourite place any more’, he claims. And pourquoi pas? ‘Because it’s MY favourite place’. Oh deep joy. What fun we’ll have later with a couple of bottles of wine and an exchange of research. We know how to live.

And so to Arles. Again. This time we park at the top of town where I’m able to suggest a backwards glance at the place where the Yellow House once stood. The railway bridge, replete with running train, is as it was when Gauguin and Vincent passed their heady nine weeks just below. I hope certain people will be glad of a chauffeur, with a useful smattering of French, who also knows about this place because, let me tell you, not many people do. And the good folk of Arles have done nothing to mark the site, let alone commemorate it in any useful way. The only reason I know about it is because I once passed a day in this town with the partner who cannot be named; a man who, inordinately temperamental , verging on the downright moody, is the most wonderful guide one might hope for. He also knows the best places to eat.

We head off to the amphitheatre, which seems to please the American no end. It’s so hot. I sit on a bench where they once watched gladiators and recall another time I was here with that crowd from Trowbridge. It was hot that day too and a couple of men were painting the wooden barriers behind which the brave matadors hide. Suddenly, a large rat appeared in the arena and we shouted a warning. One of the decorators entered with his paint cloth and, treating the vermin as a small bull, began the matador’s dance to much cheering. After a while, he got fed up and hit the rat over the head with a shovel.

Russell wants to visit the Roman Theatre and I don’t. It’s my least favourite place. I don’t know why – it seems full of glaring concrete to me. His opinion is that it’s like a Roman junk store and we’d better get some lunch toute de suite. Good plan, although we manage to get a bit lost on the way: geographically, historically, spiritually and all other permutations. Eventually, he picks a place in a shady square but I’m hot, bothered and put off by the blackboard that advertises fish and chips. Not going there. Sulking. We go next door where I order a risotto of mussels and tellines (clams). I forgot to mention that Russell is the slowest eater in the whole universe. Well, there were so many bloody tellines requiring shell removal that the American had finished his lunch before I was even done with the preparation of mine. Lunch was superb. Of course, we’d already agreed not to have pudding. But then the waiter arrived and announced desert of the day was – Isles Flottantes! My most favourite thing to eat in the whole world. Even the waiter looked delighted at the expression on my face.

Finally, full of shellfish and raw egg, we must visit the Thermes of Constantine. Up the hill, down another, along this lane. Phone him up, Russell – maybe he’s still in the bath and it’s shut. So now, Constantine’s baths assume the mantle of my most hated place in Provence. Who cares. The travelling companion is happy and we were able to walk back along the Rhône. And later, a late afternoon in the pool, a bottle of the pink stuff and an infusion of bonhomie.

 

A postcard from Arles

Making an early start to a day in which temperatures will again soar into the high thirties, we purchase a couple of those tickets that allow optimistic entrance to multiple antiquities. Our first steps into the past are taken at the atmosphere soaked Les Alyscamps, once the largest and most famous of Roman necropolises in the ancient world. Certainly, it’s my favourite venue in Arles but Russell is already perturbed by the noisy presence of three men, a chainsaw and a machine that pulps the overhanging branches they’re busy trimming from shady cypress trees. Get over it, Russell. Look at all the sarcophagi. And wait until you get to the church – surely the spookiest you might venture into.

Les Alyscamps is a remix of Champs Elysees – the Elysian Fields, through which that underpaid boatman rowed the dead across the Styx. Prior to that dangerous passage, many of those who found themselves in this necropolis had already been brought down the Rhone in their coffins from all over Europe courtesy of less esoteric mariners. A watery end to it all amongst 4000 other dead Romans. Tomb upon tomb upon tomb, literally at one time when they were stacked in threes due to overcrowding.

Russell’s striding on ahead knowledgably, oblivious to my warnings of looming phantoms. This travelling companionship is still in its infancy but already he needs to say nothing in order for me to know my helpful information is again dismissed. In a few days’ time, this sort of thing will have ceased but, for now, I linger awhile to inspect a lizard which has appeared between the cracks of a sarcophagus.

After this, I pass some time watching the graveyard cat which lives daily in the past and who, I think, was either never conceived of by T.S. Elliot or perhaps thought too scary to mention in Old Possum.

 

What practical use does a Roman cat serve other than to tidy up the ancient and modern vermin? Or possibly as an unexpected warning to the delights of Saint Honorat’s church? For even before I’ve attempted entry, here is Russell exiting with some speed and clothed in an aura of anxiety: ‘it’s the spookiest church I’ve ever been in’, he shudders. Well, who knew? Je te l’ai dit I don’t say as we go back inside together.

 

Here’s the rub with this church to which I once came alone and never ventured into the dark below stairs. It’s infested by pigeons. Pigeons that coo from their lofty, hidden heights but not in chorus. Unlike the consensually chattering cicadas, these pigeons coo – and I use the word loosely – independently.

At ground level, the received messages are mixed and fuzzy and unclear and sound not unlike the mumblings and moanings of the dead who have yet to reach the underworld. Pay the ferryman, Russell. (Can you see the ghost?)

Some time later, we find ourselves at another church – St Trophime which has been my companion’s goal since the idea of this trip was first conceived in another lifetime. I make a big effort given the potential overkill of church, chapel and cloister we’re experiencing. How I long for a provençal market or a little pottery shop, but he’s striding off again. I stop in front of an interesting looking stone frieze. Quite a lot of action it seems so I return to the lady in the fish bowl at the entrance to purchase a guide that will stay with me. It’s a heavily edited guide. The best word to describe it is ‘useless’. Clearly, it’s been written by some character who has subjectively picked out what they think are the best bits and omitted to account for anything that the uninitiated may be interested in. Hmm.

What I do like enormously is the reliquary. Just before I arrived in front of it, some easily bored type had popped a euro into the machine, lit up the sideshow and cleared off leaving it all for me. Let me tell you, the gang’s all here. There are fingers and skulls, hair and limbs, bones and organs, all sorts of pleasurably revolting body parts belonging to all the saints you may or may not have heard of in a variety of golden boxes and caskets. Slap bang in the middle are two santons on a boat – unnamed of course, but we know who they are…the ubiquitous Marys without whom no party would be complete.

Russell turns up later when I’m on the other side examining the blood clots of John Paul 2 and claims I have to visit the reliquary with him. I don’t want to spoil his fun by mentioning that I’ve already seen the bones and bits so I go back with him. It’s worth it as it’s the only thing in a church that will excite both of us, especially as he claims it’s the best euro he’s spent so far.

Of course, it was a mistake to show any interest as now we have to visit the cloisters. This is the third set of cloisters I’ve seen in two days and frankly my dear … Russell’s ecstatic and I am hot. I inform him I’m post-cloistus and I’m off outside for an ice-cream. I haven’t had an ice-cream since I arrived in France and I’ve already noted that there’s an artisan glacier in the Place de la Republique where I have my sights and taste-buds set on something infused with lavender.

With purple ice-cream dripping down the cone and along my arm, I sit in the shade opposite St Trophime in a spot where I’ll be able to see him emerge. ‘Bon Glace’, comes an unexpected voice or three and I look round to discover I seem to be part of a group of dog accompanying degenerates. This will become a theme over the next few days: every time I abandon the American, I will be immediately surrounded by down and outs and their canine accomplices. The police arrive but not to our part of the square. They’ve come to remove the man who’s staging a one-man hunger strike in the town hall and replace him in his tent outside the main entrance.

He’s a restaurateur who, apparently, has been put out of business by the mayor. It’s a complicated story – something to do with the re-routing of traffic. Anyway, he’s had nothing to eat since 16 May. I wander over to inspect his publicity but it’s just too damned hot to get energised. I sit down under some sort of Egyptian pillar.

 

This is the trouble with Arles: everywhere you look, there’s something else and we’ve barely touched the surface. Russell reappears and there’s talk of the amphitheatre, and the Roman theatre and the baths of Constantine but we’re beaten. We’ll save that for another day and another postcard.

In anticipation

June. Flaming June. Not. Warm – yes. End of. I sit in my little hobbit house, garden doors open, looking out at the relentless rain. Cardigan on, cardigan off. Who else except the English so frequently adhere to the comforts of a cardigan? I think of the other place where I will be in on Saturday. That place of which I often use Jonathan Meades’ statement – ‘every Englishman has two countries – his own, and France’. More recently, and prosaically, Meades has updated this: ‘if I’d been in England, I’d be dead’… in this monotony of electoral opportunities, a timely reference to health systems.

I know what he means. I once became dangerously unwell in that other country. I passed an unexpected eight days in the Henri Dauffaut Hospital in Avignon, saddled down with numerous drips, a ‘nil by mouth’ regime, and easy access to the French Open from a room that I shared with an ancient being who farted for France. Difficult to think of anywhere that would be more reassuring.

Flat out, waiting for an ultra-sound scan, the kindly French folk played a quiet game of Cluedo: ‘this is Madame Green’ and, in reference to a moaning body on another stretcher, ‘this is Madame White. We’re just waiting for Colonel Mustard’. How we roared.

I’m to travel with a companion from the colonies. Ameriky. He’s in for a shock of the most pleasant kind once we’ve bumped onto the runway in an ancient prop plane and overcome the rental car fiasco. ‘Someone will meet and greet you from the security area’, says the man on the phone. ‘Have you ever been to Avignon airport?’ I respond. There are two rooms: arrive and leave.

It must be one of life’s greatest pleasures to arrive in Provence for the first time. They say that one’s first visit to Paris is an unmatchable experience. Paris is not Provence. It’s not even France. Provence is an indescribable challenge to the senses. There are no accepted terms of reference – suspend everything you live by, especially time, and all will be well. Immersion is essential.

Never fear that the place has been spoiled by the travelling classes. The folk of the South remain in a provençal bubble in which we come and go for a couple of weeks. Ignore the boutiques of St Remy. Read your Daudet and Mistral and look beneath to discover that the quotidian is as it was. Rien ne change ici. Which is why I keep going back.

And it’s why this piece has no beginning, middle or discernible end. Just popping the cardigan back on. Oh England – my England.

A little treasure

Generally, he wakes up at 4.59am precisely. This seems like a sensible time: you get to hear the last of the news from the BBC World Service before one’s cultural context turns to the more parochial. He’s back in bed by 5.59am so catches the Shipping Forecast but misses Tweet of the Day and the boring business news. By 7am, his day has started properly with a bottle of the white stuff and, if you’re not up and dressed already, you’d better get a move on. From then on, it’s non-stop.

He’s quite a small person, maybe no more than two feet high, so how does he create so much work? People dash around, rushing to meet his every need like a member of royalty. We wash and scrub and clean; we move anything that smacks of danger; we sing and wave and recall long lost rhymes: who were those ‘three men’ in a tub and why? What happened whilst we rowed merrily down the stream? Why did that pig go to market if not to become a pork chop?

Grandmas are forbidden the front seat of the car: we are consigned to the back seat and the role of travelling entertainer. Mothers – once daughters – are in charge, issuing advice and instructions from the front. Mothers know everything. Grandmas were never mothers. They are berated for not knowing left from right and for making inane suggestions involving baked beans. Their children’s children are a new variety of precious beings. We sit in the back with all the baggage and we long for a glass of wine and a cigarette, even though we no longer smoke. Grandmas play with other people’s toes and dwell on long-forgotten and now forbidden rusks and look aimlessly out of the window, waiting for the next instruction.

 Grandmas who have lived their lives as independent and forceful creatures are silenced by the mothers who know better. And that small person sits there, with the trees rushing past, waiting for the next big thing. Or waiting for the next meal. We lay in bed, hoping for more sleep and dreaming of the day after when we aren’t subservient to a small person and his very tired mummy who we silently applaud.

And then, the overland safari moves homeward bound and we breathe a sigh of guilty relief and begin the great clean-up. Out come the bleach and the polish. On goes the washing machine. Here’s the wine – and RELAX. Wait, something’s missing: it’s too quiet.

 

 

 

Small jobs

There’s a bit of a problem with the continuous drip drip of a tap on the bathroom sink. I know I’ll need new taps because I’m pretty sure the current ones are originals. The bathroom suite is a sort of dull apricot colour – probably avant-garde back in the seventies when the middle classes were fleeing avocado, but not on trend now even in these retro days. And a replacement washer is so ‘yesterday’.

B & Q sent me a friendly email. It said, ‘you don’t visit, you don’t call so here’s £5 off your next purchase’. I think they’ve confused me with someone else as I’m always in the joint , especially on Diamond Day when old people can get 10% deducted from purchases just for being ancient. It’s a bloody nightmare there on Wednesdays when all of us withered folk stumble into each other with the wrong trolleys and spend an extra tedious hour trying to remember where we abandoned our cars. Still, £5 is £5 when all’s said and done so off I go to get the taps. Naturally, they don’t have the taps I’m after.

I phone twenty five plumbers and no-one wants to know because the job’s too small. It’s the same with fence panels: nobody wants to replace one solitary fence panel – the job’s too small. Tradespeople don’t realise or care that you might recommend them to your neighbours. In any case, they always persuade you that something else needs urgent attention. Anyway, Malcolm got back to me. Several times. Once he phoned when I was wandering round a churchyard looking at some dead people. Previous jobs will take longer and can he come a week next Wednesday depending on the rain.

I’m not even convinced he is a plumber. I found him via a voicemail that said, ‘I’m on holiday, can you call Malcolm’. He arrives at 7.30pm and says, ‘well Judith, I need to get into the loft’. But it’s a tap Malcolm – can’t you just turn the water off? I show him where the stop cock is. ‘Oh, nasty leak under the kitchen sink’, says Malcolm. ‘I could put a bit of tape on it’. Well, there’s a surprise. Malcolm looks under the bathroom basin. ‘Oh, nasty leak under there. I could put a bit of tape on it’.

I leave him to it. I can hear him grunting and puffing and talking to himself: ‘oh dear, oh dear’.

‘Any luck?’ I call out optimistically.

Eventually, it’s fixed. ‘I might have to come back, Judith’, he says. ‘Malcolm’, I say, ‘who is Judith? Anyway, how much do I owe you?’

‘Well how much do you want to pay?’ he says and I am stumped. It’s not a big job but he’s been with me for such a huge part of my life that I can’t remember a time when he wasn’t upstairs grunting. We settle on twenty quid and a bowl under the sink. ‘See you next week then’.