Tuesday, May 28, 2013

La Vie en Rosé and The God Interviews

I'm terribly slow off the mark here, by about seven years in the one case, and at least as many months in the other; I really do want to have a bit of a shout about something that many of you probably know all about and have on your bookshelves already.

I've known about Natalie d'Arbeloff and seen her around for quite as long as I've been blogging, but somehow or other we didn't get properly acquainted and start visiting until the last year or so, possibly through Clive's Artlog and the on-line exhibitions there.  Though this is somewhat of an oversight, I find it very heartening that I'm still making new friends and discoveries after all this time, including those who have been around even longer than I have. Natalie, for those who don't know, and there must be a one or two if not many, is an extraordinarily talented person in an extraordinary number of areas. She's proud to call herself a blogger (as the name of her alter-ego 'Blaugustine' would affirm), but she was an artist and illustrator of renown long before that, is a rare humorist and clearly has a remarkable and unusual hinterland.

I ordered her La Vie en Rosé not long after it came out late last year, but only got around to reading it fairly recently. It was initially sparked, in 2009, by a kind of bloggers' game of Consequences, whereby one person wrote 250 words, another followed on, etc.  I'm afraid at the time I found this exercise rather impenetrable and hard to follow, and suspected it was more fun for those engaged in it than for other readers, so in fact finding that Natalie had followed up the words:

we gulp what is here and ours and nobody's and nothing's...


... George said, handing her his glass of rosé.

That's how he talked. She couldn't understand him half the time but he was a poet and she had learned not to ask for explanations

I was instantly gratified.

I'm rather wary of books and stories written by, for or about English and English-speaking people living in France; fiction or non-fiction, comic or earnest, the 'expat' genre spawned by Peter Mayle and Joanne Harris makes me squirm quite a bit, but in the setting of La Vie en Rosé, though it's not exactly recognisable, I feel she's nailed it, not least because she satirises and subverts the conventions of that genre.  I straight away liked, felt drawn into and wanted to believe in the world she creates.  The humour is sharp and quick but also light and kind.  Natalie, is, I believe, at once very clever and very kind, which is still quite a rare combination.  It's funny and charming and wry and moving, and just a joy throughout.

In the story, the two main characters, a most oddly assorted pair, are drawn together, almost inadvertently, by a shared imaginative endeavour.  They encounter reversals and obstructions, with many a comedy of errors and hilarious episode, they move on and diverge, largely revert to their old selves and patterns, but are momentarily if not momentously lifted out of themselves, touched by one another and by something larger, changed and strengthened.  It's only a little book but a delightful one, not glib or over- romantic, but  thoroughly satisfying.

The characters are also drawn with a light but loving touch,

and they are similarly drawn in actual pictures too! The book is illustrated throughout in beautiful grayscale.  No stranger to the problems and costs of colour publishing, Natalie has gone for Blurb's small format, low cost black-and-white books, and her drawings are just perfect for it.  It's a brilliant choice and makes print on demand a viable and affordable option for authors and readers alike.  You can order it directly from Blurb here, and I strongly urge you to do so.

Incidentally, in reading it I learned about the celebrated Facteur Cheval, of whom I had previously been shamefully ignorant.  Shortly after, I opened our Almanach de Facteur, that indispensible volume, and found a mention of him and his Palais idéal among other notable French postmen!

Then, consequently, I finally read and was bowled over by The God Interviews.  There is so much to say about this, and much has already been said by more eloquent reviewers than I here, so please, I know many of you know, own and love this book already, but if you don't, now's the time to do so, so follow those links.   It's not only wise and clever and inspired, it's also magically, beautifully and consistently realised, with myriad tiny,understated witty details that make it worth going back to again and again, though a first reading is quickly accomplished.  One of my favourite moments in it are when Blaugustine and God are looking at the 'Super Spiritual Sale' in the bookshop window, with 'All the Answers for the Price of One!', and titles such as My Chats with God by Daphne Dolphin, My lunch with Goddess by Lavinia Starsign, Proof that there is No God by Professor I.N. Fallible, and God is dead, she told me so, by Hippekool Dood.  Another is when Blaugustine admits to her own experiential conviction of God's existence (not in so many words) but laments to God: 'But I can't prove it to anyone else', to which God simply replies 'So?'

So thank you Natalie, and I'm sorry it's taken me seven years to get there!

Wednesday, May 22, 2013


This is Clémentine l'Oie, a gosling, at four days old.  When I went round last week to see C, who is fourteen and who I help with her English, Clémentine was nesting in a plastic bowl lined with a towel on the kitchen floor.

'A duck!' I said
'A goose,' C corrected me.
'Where did you get her?' I asked.
'From a neighbour,' C answered.
'Um, is she for food or for company?' (it's as well not to make assumptions...)
'Company! And eggs...' she added.
'Ah, big eggs. Is it a girl or a boy?'
'It's too soon to know.'

Clémentine thinks that C is her mother.  You can understand this because C is very beautiful and very kind. Clémentine spent our English lesson snuggled on C's lap making happy little cheeping noises, but C was very good and always concentrated on her work.

I asked her to send me a photo to show to Tom, because he especially loves geese (which is an irregular plural, of course).  I asked if I could put the photo on my blog.

'C'est quoi votre blog?' came the reply.

When I explained what manner of truc my blog was, C was more than happy for Clémentine to appear.  She has grown already, I'm told, so when I see them next week she'll probably be flying around the kitchen.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Saint Michiel de la Mer del Peril...

... St Michael in peril from the sea, as it became known in the Middle Ages, sea-girt and tenuously connected to the land, a connection which could be severed at any time.  Yet it wasn't always so; in our hotel restaurant, one wall was taken up by this map:

a reconstruction of how the shape of land and sea was over thirteen hundred years ago.  The Mont of that time is the little triangular point standing alone towards the bottom right of the image.  The land was marshy and prone to flooding from sea and rivers, but nevertheless the island of today was inland; the Forêt de Scissy no longer exists, having been entirely inundated, and the peninsular of Scissy at the top of the map is now the islands of Chausey (though this seems uncertain).  The forest in question was a desert; an old Roman road just about cut through it, and a few lonely monks and hermits lived there somehow.  It was all swept away by a series of monster tides in the eighth century and later; the known history and wild legends of abbots and angelic visitations are all mixed up together. I love the dark ages.

And now, despite the high tides which have been known to wash away cars from the car park, it is not so much in peril of the sea, but in danger of becoming landlocked again, hence the massive changes and works that are now taking place.  The factors of geology and sedimentation that have led to this, the reclamation of land by the engineers of the last couple of hundred years, the building of dam and dykes and polders and the natural changes in coastal geography - which are not always those of erosion and destruction even in these times of climate change and rising sea levels - are complex, and actually quite fascinating, but rather than attempt to go into them here, I'd recommend this excellent article, on the blog of a professional geologist whose lifelong specialism has been sand and what it does, he's even written a book all about it.

It contains many interesting maps and pictures, of which I've pinched one, showing the way the Mont has looked until very recently, with the causeway and car park (left) running alongside the mouth of the Couesnon river,

and on the right, how it will appear in about 2025, when the sea has been allowed to take back so much more of the space around it, and the only access will be a new road - open only to pedestrians and the electric shuttles - suspended on pillars over the water.

This road will end on a sandy ford which will, at times of the highest tides, be covered with water, so the Mont becomes, momentarily, truly an island again.  The projections above are from this document (an on-line PDF) in a reasonable English translation, and this site, in a somewhat quaint but rather endearing translation (don't they ever think to get a native English speaker to check them? I'd do it...) which explain more about this impressive project, and why it is considered necessary - they're worth browsing around for some of the videos and fly-through simulations.

One goes to le Mont St Michel, of course, to marvel. That is why it is called la Merveille, though originally that referred only to the structure on the north face, built in the 14th century on top of the original 11th century church building, which was a marvel in itself.  Henry Adams in his (rather marvellous) book Mont St Michel and Chartres describes how

instead of cutting the summit away to give his church a secure rock foundation, which would have sacrificed about thirty feet of height, the Abbot took the apex of the rock for his level, and on all sides built out foundations of masonry to support the walls of his church. The apex of the rock is the floor of the croisée, the intersection of nave and transept. On this solid foundation the Abbot rested the chief weight of the church, which was the central tower, supported by the four great piers which still stand; but from the croisée in the centre westward to the parapet of the platform, the Abbot filled the whole space with masonry, and his successors built out still farther, until some two hundred feet of stonework ends now in a perpendicular wall of eighty feet or more.

It was always a place of pilgrimage - indeed one of the places, for a trip there could let you off many years of purgatory - and one could marvel at God there; the mediaeval pilgrims shouted for joy at their first sight of it from Montjoie, and the sight of it hanging in the sea haze like a vision still never fails to make the heart leap, even a glimpse of it, tiny through the clouds, from the cross-channel plane makes one start with wonder. We look out at the blue and silver beauty of the sea and sands and their patterns and we marvel at nature for sure, but chiefly, we marvel at the works of man*, and of so very long ago.  Looking up at the sheer walls of the abbey and its culminating angel, defying gravity, the sea and the weather, one marvels 'how did they do that?'

But we mustn't forget to wonder at the works of our own times.  We were not alone in spending as much time gazing and marvelling at the new constructions taking shape as at the ancient ones already there.

The road on pillars;

busy machines shifting sand and silt;

the road nearing its end on the beach under the Mont;

men at work with noisy kit;

view from further up on the Mont.  On the right are a party of horses and riders, about to set off across the sands, a popular activity, inspired perhaps by Victor Hugo, who pleaded for the site to be valued for the treasure it is when it was still a neglected prison in the 19th century, and who said that the tides came in across the Bay with the speed of a galloping horse, possibly a slight exaggeration.

The knowledge of how to navigate the sands safely on foot or horseback is a special one; the dangers of the tides and quicksands are not exaggerated. I've not been able to find out how the re-shaping of the bay and the water-flow will affect this, but it seems the guides and experts were consulted with.

The other major element is the new barrage across the mouth of the river. This is certainly an imposing bit of gear and tackle,

but is hailed as a thing of beauty too, so the trim's not bad either: heavy bronze parapets and hubs and hatchway covers which are already taking on a rich verdigris hue.  The parapet rail is engraved with script from the four alphabets - Latin, Greek, Hebrew and Arabic - represented in the mediaeval manuscripts from the abbey's scriptorium, and the hatchways are numbered in the same scripts:

Zero, of course, only existed in Arabic and Hebrew at those times.

Postscript correction: It has been pointed out to me (see comments) that the above is not strictly true: the concept of, and a figure for, zero had long been in use in Indian mathematical notation, from which it was transmitted into Arabic, and hence into the European system.  I would argue though, that this does not necessarily, as was asserted, make the term 'Arabic numerals' a misnomer; French bread originated with techniques acquired from Austria  (as I understand, unless this is another 'urban myth' better called a 'popular misconception' to my mind!),  we can still call it French bread. In any case, the scripts used in the bronze work of the barrage were the four to be found in the mediaeval manuscripts in the scriptorium of the abbey, of which there were presumably no Sanskrit or Jain ones...

I should have taken more note and more photos of the barrage and its details, instead of having to do much of this research afterwards.

However, after all our adventures and foot-slogging, our tongues were hanging out, so like the other changes which have still to be realised - the new road will be brought into commission and the old one finally demolished and flooded over next year - we'll have to go back and have another look at a future time.

1st, 4th, 5th, 7th, 9th and 13th photos (I think) in this series taken by Tom. Thanks dearie!


* and it is man, I'm prepared to go with Adams on that: the guardian spirit of the Archangel and his church is masculine, as was the Norman 11th century that raised them, while the animating, embracing soul of Chartres, blue and black Madonnas, Blanche of Castille and the 12th century, is feminine; it may sound flaky and I'm wary of such glib, romantically sexist distinctions, but to me it still has a ring of truth.


Saturday, May 11, 2013

Molly and more at Mont St Michel

Mol and my legs, ready to mount the Mont

Molly is in fact something of a Mont St Michel veteran.  The first time we went there was some years ago when she was much younger, with no grey in her muzzle.  We met up with some friends, quite early in the day, and we all wound our way to the top, where we discovered that we couldn't take her into the abbey itself, so she and I raced down to the bottom again, I put her in the car in the car park at the foot of the Mont, and raced - yes I did - up again, while Tom and our friends watched me from above.  I must have been quite a bit younger then too, to have done that.

Now, on account of all the massive earth- and water-moving works going on there, on which I will post more later, you can no longer leave your car at the foot, but must park quite some way inland, walk about a kilometre, and catch one of the new electric shuttle buses - or you can walk all the way.

I failed to get a good picture of the full-sized passenger buses, but this is one of the small La Montoise versions laid on for people who work on the Mont, which I feel can only be described as cute.

Later in the year you will  be able to take one drawn by beautiful Percheron horses, but these are still on their test drives.

We cheerfully hopped on board the bus, which then became so crowded that the ubiquitous Japanese tourists must have felt quite at home as if on the Tokyo metro, then noticed the sign in the window saying that dogs weren't allowed on board.  Mol was astonishingly good, stayed firmly between my feet, didn't flinch, whine or tremble, and by a mercy didn't get trodden on, though a small girl whose eye-level was not very much above hers, offered to tickle her with the feather she was carrying, then noticed the no-dogs sign and spent the rest of the trip  telling the world the dog shouldn't be on the bus, despite her mother's assurances that the lady hadn't seen the sign and the dog was surely très gentil... On the way back a friendly young operative smiled and waved us on, but asked that we carry her while on board, which for the few minutes it takes, with kindly Japanese faces peering into hers and making sympathetic 'aww!' noises and expressions, wasn't too onerous.

Anyway, dogs are expected to frequent the crowded cobbled paths and streets of the citadelle.  So Mol was able to avail herself of refreshment:

This clever device was the tou-tou bar, the doggie's bar, which meant fresh(er) water not easily knocked over.  And now, when you get to the abbey and want to go in but tou-tou can't, for seven euros there's even a kennelling service where you can leave them, though I'm afraid our Molly wouldn't tolerate that.

And while we were there saw met some other non-human habitués:

a sparrow and a unicorn,

an arrangment of gulls,

and some kitties on a rooftop (rooftops are often seen from above here).  When we were re-roofing our house, we bought some triangular ventilator fixtures, which were called chatières.  No cat could have passed through them, and neither could any bird, bat or even larger than average spider, since they were covered with a kind of slatted mesh, but the name evidently dated from a time when cats were expected to live and come and go on and just under the roof space of buildings, and these two had their own purpose-made chatière by having some slates dislodged for their ease of access.

We enjoyed looking out at sky and sands and the distant landforms of the Cotentin peninsular,

and the rocky islet of Tombelaine, the Mont's little sister.

I always enjoy these views framed by the arrow loops and their embrasures in the walls:

We didn't go right up to the abbey, but walked around much of the path around the ramparts, and Moll managed most of the steep stone steps without help.  We were very glad to stop, and picked a restaurant terrace that was cool and shady and which we had to ourselves.

Though it wasn't much after 10 am, the tables were laid for lunch, but they didn't mind just bringing us hot chocolate, and another drink of fresh water for Molly in an ash tray

It was almost certainly the most expensive hot chocolate we have ever tasted,

but surely the most restorative, and worth every eurocent, for the space and the cool shade and the views.

Then we made our way out by archway and causeway, shuttle bus and barrage ready for our next adventure, which I seem to remember was a bottle of cider and a brioche and our feet up for the afternoon... So taxing.

More MStM stuff later, though I've written and photographed better about it here, here, here and here. Oh I did love that old Canon Powershot.

(Tom took some of these, obviously, the ones with me in, and one or two of the others, 8 and 13, I think.)

Tuesday, May 07, 2013


Just a quick one on landing.  We've been spending a couple of days at Pontorson, near le Mont St Michel, the trip we were meant to have done on my 50th birthday, which we booked a couple of weeks ago.  We viewed all the amazing engineering works that have been going on around the Mont, travelled on the new electric shuttle buses to the foot of it, walked quite a bit of the way up it despite saying we'd done it before and didn't  need to again, because once you get there you just have to.  Took quite a few photos which I haven't downloaded yet.  And we lounged and read and consumed large amounts of delicious food and drink remarkably cheaply in a very simple but friendly hotel.  I mulled a lot but didn't mope. The weather, the light, the flowers and the colours of sea and land and sky were miraculously beautiful, and it felt like a gift, not to be squandered.

We left on Sunday, Heather's funeral had been on the Saturday, a long day and a demanding one and a lot of driving.  The mass part was in the church of St Michel in St Brieuc, a building which has long tended to give me the horrors, though of more recent times I often parked near to it when I visited her, and came to rather like the quartier. It was very cold in there.  Then we made our way up to Paimpol to join the boat which was taking her to be buried on the Île de Bréhat.  There are no cars there, and the tiny cemetery, where her eldest daughter is also buried, is at the top of the town.  The image of the little red tractor pulling the trailer with the velvet-draped coffin, and a motley band of reasonably solemn but lively people (and one dog, Molly came too) following along behind through the diminutive streets of the island, with its pink rocks and houses, strange warm air, clouds of perfumed flowers and crowds of wondering tourists, is one that will stay with me for a long time.

I'll sort out some photos of the Mont St Michel trip shortly.