Wednesday, February 27, 2013

A walk around Hénon

I have lately been tasked with the care and feeding of J's cat while J is on holiday.  Not a difficult job, but not a very interesting one, since while Scatty is a cat with much fur and excess weight, she does not possess much personality.  She sometimes shows herself briefly when I arrive, once or twice has tolerated a couple of strokes, then retreats under the bed.  In my absence, she eats much of the food - about a quarter of the amount I have been instructed to give her but more than enough -  and uses the litter tray, thereby justifying my turning up at all, to top up the former and clean up the latter, but there is no incentive to sit around and keep her company.  It has been perishingly cold and she has no interest in going out of doors, and I can't say I blame her.

So I had a walk round Hénon, where J lives, a small commune a few kilometres over the hill from where we live.  There is nothing remarkable or picturesque about the place, it is rather down at heel and has not been subjected to the kind of makeover that even our own commune of Plémy has lately undergone, involving reckless planting of hornbeam trees and construction of such new-fangled things as pavements and kerbs throughout the length of the bourg - the village centre - and a consequent rise in our local taxes.  It's tempting to say Hénon  doesn't have much personality either, but this is perhaps unfair. Its lack of modernity offers some elements of interest in itself,  

for example, in the old-fashioned French-blue house number plates.  In most communes now, the street signs usually have white backgrounds and feature an up to date commune logo, and indeed many in Hénon are a rather harsh grass-green on white, but that which commemorates the young Resistance fighter Jean Sio ('died for France, wishing to save his comrades from being taken prisoner'), which is fixed to the wall of J's house,  once, it's said, the café where the Resistance members met, has been retained.  Whatever necessary and truthful revisions have been made to the accounts and mythologising of those times and people, and whatever the story was, Jean Sio was terribly young.  In the woods and hedgerows where Molly and I have sometimes walked, are shabby marble stones and crosses marking the spots where he and others were shot.

An odd name, Sio, perhaps one of those of Spanish origin that abound in these parts, which are peppered with Caros and Hellios. Carlos and Philippos, legacy of the Wars of Religion, when, and I'm not quite sure how and why, many Spanish settled here.  The section of the First World War memorial in the collage below, shows that nine young men with the family name Carlo lost their lives a generation before, among scores of others.

And there are other quaint and sometimes cheerier things to be found here: the remains of an old pump on a house wall; the nurses' office which used to be quite an imposing public baths and showers (Hénon Bains-Douches), a funny little man on a roof end (these are called épis de faitage, this one is a traditional design but probably modern), walking and biking trails, a hairdresser whose name means 'a thousand and one cuts' (ugh, why do they so often call them that?) vegetable patches tucked away round many a corner; more oddities in the way of doors and windows, ramshackle and dilapidated, neat and prettified, than you can shake a stick at; and a general store-cum-butcher's, with the curious mosaic 'boucherie' sign.  This is the only one of these here, but other small inland towns also possess these, all of a similar style.  Again, I don't know their history or provenance, but there was a family of Italian mosaicists whose beautiful work adorns several private and public buildings in Rennes, the regional capital, from the early 20th century, and I wonder if there was a vogue for imitation, albeit someway amateurish, out in the backwoods...

The butcher's faded van has been delivering to our hamlet all the fifteen years we've been living here, come rain or shine or snow.  They are noted for their sausages,

There's also a bakery, who do a good linseed loaf, and a reasonable baguette.

More doors and windows.

There is a small Catholic primary school, and a huge late 19th century church, a kind of quarter-sized cathedral, much frequented for funerals but I'm not sure for how much else. 

A visiting Dutch friend of our Dutch friend E, on visiting J when she first moved there, was somewhat horrified by the enormous crucified Jesus so close to the house.  We were all a bit non-plussed, since we hadn't really noticed.  I thought she must have been referring to the calvaire, the full crucifixion scene, sometimes complete with thieves, St John and a Mary or two, at the other end of the same street.  Protestant (with a small 'p') English to the core as I am, I struggle with full-on Catholic iconography as much as anyone, especially that from this time and place, when the Roman church, trying to seize back the ground lost during Enlightenment and Revolution, threatened by the imminence of the final separation between church and state which took place at the beginning of the 20th century, taking advantage of the fear and vulnerability in the wake of the Franco-Prussian war and the relative conservative religiousness of Brittany in particular, hammered home their message with grim, overblown, oversized edifices of pastiche architecture and overwrought art.  Yet it wasn't really till I took this photo that I noticed the crucifix that had given our Dutch visitor the heebie-jeebies.  

I've never in fact been inside the church here, and don't have any great wish to, it never seems very accessible except when there's a funeral on anyway, I'm not sure where the main entrance even is.  But I enjoyed finding some shapes and corners to enjoy on the outside.

Not featuring in any pictures, there is a popular bar run by a very out gay couple (one of whom also runs the hairdressers, I think), sometimes helped by their retired parents. Sometimes in the summer they set up a bar in an open garage out the back, spread some sand on the pavement, put out some deckchairs and potted palms and make it into Hénon plage; up the hill is an English-run B&B and a restaurant; and down the hill a little a monstrous bright green shed of a sports centre.  There is a very plain but purpose built theatre for the local amateur dramatic group, also quite popular, where I spent possibly one of the most excruciating evenings of my life, which I have (briefly) described here before and have no wish to re-live again. It is also noteworthy as the home of the dechétèrie.

There is also a house which looks like it was converted from an old garage perhaps with this over the door, of which I can make no sense whatever.

And because it is really a very small place, on a hillside, with no main roads leading to it, everywhere there are field and open country at the end of the road.  And the are plots of ground and old farm-ish buildings everywhere.  In one there were some intensely illuminated cabbages, with the frost still on them in places,

and stems like giant lolling caterpillars.

And from another, a dove watched me from the winter branches of a walnut tree, and, and this was the best thing really to be seen there, a charm of perhaps a dozen or more goldfinches rose up from the leeks and groundsel and chickweed like so many tinkling enamelled bells on invisible strings.

They were really too fast for my camera; the sidelong shots which showed their yellow wing bars failed to focus quickly enough, but I caught one or two enough to show their crimson, audacious faces before they whirled up and off again.

So there we are, Hénon, a somewhat unlovely place, but not altogether an uninteresting one.


Zhoen said...

So much, forgotten what I was going to say.

the polish chick said...

you realise you're my go-to blog for "intensely illuminated cabbages", right?

also, if you think henon unlovely, you'd fall into deep despair at some of the purely utilitarian towns that my corner of the world boasts.

Clive Hicks-Jenkins said...

There are Henons everywhere, and I know of many here in Wales that would make yours look the epitome of picturesqueness. At least Henon has enough of what the French have a great skill for, which is leaving well alone. Stone walls, vintage enamel house-numbers and weather-worn shutters at least lend a pleasing patina to the place, whereas there are so may Welsh villages trailing ribbon-like along the roads, with houses from which any hint of history has been ruthlessly pared away, that the eye can find nothing pleasingly worn to rest on. Sash and casement windows are replaced with UPVC (my pet hate), and in Wales there is an attachment to pebbledash bungalow that really makes the heart sink. Councils relentlessly 'improve' the roads and pavements with acres of brutal concrete curbing that knocks the character out of places, and road-signs proliferate. making approaching or leaving a community akin to entering or leaving some superstore for signage! The erosion is relentless, and all is made worse by the fact that local building traditions have long since given way to a bland uni-style found everywhere. The same bogus 'Georgian style' doors (with a semicircular transom light sporting glazing bars thick as kindling sticks) can be seen clear across the UK c/o the national building suppliers who call the shots. It's all most dispiriting.

But more dispiriting still is the fact that when you try to point out the decline, most people really seem not to see the erosion of character that renders so many once attractive communities bland and shabby. Of course the car rules, and curves and corners and meanders in the roads get straightened out so everyone can go faster and get to the next godawful and de-natured community as quickly as possible. Or maybe they're all just rushing to somewhere prettier to despoil. Ho hum!

Clive Hicks-Jenkins said...

Apologies for the above rant. A fit of the grumps!

Lucy said...

Thanks chaps.

Z - not to worry, thanks for reading anyway!

PC - let me light up your brassicas!

Clive - rant away, thanks for such a spirited and engaged response! Interesting comparisons. Ribbon towns are quite rare here, faster main roads tend to skirt round towns and villages, there being plenty of space I suppose. Pebble dash also doesn't seem to be a feature, or I don't remember seeing it. The modern mass domestic architecture, often in the form of 'lotissements', which are kind of small housing estates where amenities are made available more cheaply, and someone usually buys a plot and has a pattern book house built, to a type conforming to regional norms, is fairly unimaginative, usually involving a lot of cream-coloured rendering hereabouts. Plus-beaux-villages type places like Moncontour are very exacting these days about what they will and won't allow, but other places less so. Changing agricultural land to building is very difficult, and I'm afraid it's the farmers more than anyone who are the despoilers of the countryside in many ways. UPVC windows are much loved here, we pulled them out of our house and put wooden ones in, which everyone thought was very funny since it was the opposite of what the old lady who lived there before had done a few years earlier. Now, after years of frustration trying to keep the wooden ones watertight and maintained in the face of driving, waterlogged south-westerly winds up off the Bay of Biscay, we can almost see the point of the UPVC!

There's still quite a strong vogue here, if one has a bit of extra dosh to build a house and consider yourself a bit more bold and trendy, to go for a very modernist, sub-Le-Corbusier, white cuboid thing. Not really the thing for the climate of the western fringes, but I suppose worse aesthetically than a fake Georgian!

Julia said...

Ah, how lovely to be taken on a virtual tour, thank you Lucy! And yes, it induced a bout of home-sickness for my own French village which is quite similar although not as large or interesting.

Your mosaics of pictures are lovely, the cabbages are compelling and I have to admit that PVC windows protect my own house from that dastardly west wind that engages in frequent battles with the gate to my courtyard.

Roderick Robinson said...

The mark of a true friend: a willingness to clean out the cat litter tray. Gosh, Luce, what would you do for love?

The places we choose to live in don't need to be picturesque: their down-at-heel structures are quickly overlaid with personal associations or, in my case, responses to their descriptions in French. I never visited Drefféac's salle polyvalente because I knew it would never live up to the promise of its techno-philosophical name.

How perverse of you, given your frequently cavalier attitude to the inclusion of accents ("The character map doesn't work," she weaselled) pedantically to incorporate the dubious second accent of you-know-what. I remember you discussing this at the time. Not that it was going to stop me reading the post for the nty-nth time and to see whether there was anything I'd forgotten.

Oh goodness! You've added a THIRD accent and missed out the first. It doesn't matter in the slightest, really, because I've already got my head down. I'd forgotten about Juppé (one of my devoirs many years ago was to transcribe a Q&A session with him recorded from France Inter; a very, very deep voice and a hopelessly extended metaphor about la purge which I never got to the bottom of).

But quickly I'm on to the modernisation of the sewerage system (Possibly the moment when I decided my vocation would be to become a blogger) and I'm on to eating my dinner off the Hénon tip, and yes it's all coming back.

But, oh hell, I made a pledge a week ago, following a disaster with Beth's blog, never to write any more long comments and this has all the hallmarks. Let me quickly finish with this exhortation:

Old hands will know what I'm talking about, newer converts may need a nudge.

Whether you believe that the French for a dump is:

une déchetterie
une déchètterie
une déchèterie

une dechéttèrie

you are failing in your duty towards Box Elder's progenitor if you haven't read "The déchèterie, and other waste matters" posted on August 21 2007. A seminal work.

Lucy said...

Thanks Julia, good to see you here with your new and true, non-murine appellation!

RR - ha, I knew I could lure you out with reference to the déchèterie! Ah what a genius was on me when I wrote that post! And what a long time ago, have I really been blogging so long?

In fact I copy and pasted that spelling from the original post, since with this computer, sans a Windows OS, there is no character map. What I have instead is a nifty Chrome extension whereby you can create most accents by keyboard shortcuts. It's great, but guess what, it doesn't work in Blogger's post editor in the 'compose' mode, though it works in the html, in the post title box, and here in the comments. In my defence for the variable spelling of that place's French name, the French themselves don't seem quite sure how it should be spelled, the signposts vary.

Juppé was before even our time here. I read about the law, whereby there was some kind of financial incentive to trade in old wrecks of cars, and which was humorously nicknamed the 'juppette' which is the word for a mini-skirt.

Our salle polyvalente (the Poll Sallyvalante was an inadvertent bit of spoonerising by my sister-in-law which I held on to and cherished) has recently been renamed the Salle Kheops, since it has a pyramid shaped roof. We assume this is also evidence of a sense of humour, rather than municipal grandiosity, although it could also be seen to indicate that said building resembles a giant tomb, I suppose...

Your comments, be they ever so long, are always welcome and enjoyed. You can always split them in two if you find you are over-running the character limit, which also does me the favour of making it look as though I have more comments!

Natalie d'Arbeloff said...

Not only a wonderful post, Lucy, but great comments too. What more can one ask of blogging? I marvel at how much fun, artistry and history you managed to unearth and capture, visually and verbally, in an apparently dull place. A kind of archeological dig performed by the eyes only, and of course the wide-awake mind behind them.

Pam said...

Can I lower the tone a bit and put in a word or two to defend the cat? I think it's a bit unreasonable to go away and leave a cat alone and expect it not to be a bit unhappy and frightened when a relative stranger comes into its house. Even if you visited us, our cats might well hide under the table till you sat down in a warm room for a bit. Then they'd come and chat about this and that, settle down on your legs, play with your knitting etc and demonstrate their very different personalities. I mean, they're cats. They wouldn't defend you from a burglar or anything. But they have characters, likes (warmth, prawns) and dislikes (doorbells, window cleaners).

However - lovely post, very interesting as usual!

Rouchswalwe said...

Scatty, I hope, has a window to look out of while she's home alone. My little guy used to love watching the birds in the big pine trees, especially after we moved to a second floor apartment.

The walk through this village was marvelous for me, bringing up memories of a similar German village I grew up in. I'm grateful for the way you pointed your camera to both little and large, sweet Lucy!

Lucy said...

Natalie, thank you so much.

Isabelle - you are quite right, but in fact I was nicer to the cat than I made clear, and by the end of the week she had become downright friendly.

R - Scatty did actually have access to the garden, but I didn't get the impression she went out. One of my other jobs was feeding the large population of sparrows in the back garden!

Unknown said...

Late to this post as usual it is hard for me not to say thank you to an ungrateful cat for its richness. Perhaps you would have transferred your attention elsewhere. I write as a temporary cat-feeder of some experience. Though I like cats I don't on the whole like feeding other people's. It seems to me that that the creatures resent your presence as old people might resent the visit of alien carers. It's not that I blame them. I'm glad the cat became more friendly towards the end of your term of duty.

Pam said...

I didn't mean to imply that you were uncaring towards the cat! I'm sure you are a cat-feeder of the highest quality!!

Fleur de blé noir said...

I smile to read what you sai on Hénon Village.. If Mme le Maire learn that, she wild enjoyed !( LOL!)
I Know this village and his church véry nice et Beautifull. It is Authentique! Hénon have e very nice little théatre .
What you thing of Quessoy ?
Excuses me for my véry bad English

Lucy said...

Joe - that is a perfect description of a cat's attitude to being looked after by someone else.

Fleur - lovely to see you, thank you! I'll visit your blog tout de suite to talk about Quessoy etc.

Marly Youmans said...

I liked the window-and-door collage--made Henon seem worn, with little glimmerings of beauty.

The world is despoiled, no doubt of it. Even in a town like ours, so tightly zoned that you can't put up a fence without abiding by a booklet of rules, horrible bland ugliness intrudes. But perhaps there are secrets of beauty and hope hidden inside some of those bits of Henon...