Sunday, 25 February 2018

If You're Going to Paris....

As I did recently, well, sometimes all of this peace and quite and fresh air and healthy living needs to be balanced by a weekend of people and museums and streetlights and restaurants and hustle and bustle and noise and mayhem, in other words, a weekend in Paris, so if you're going to Paris a cautionary tale follows.

I had booked a room in a small hotel on the Île Saint-Louis, small room, large price, but it is in the centre of Paris and even a person with no sense of direction should be able to find her way back there at the end of a day's adventuring, I'd thought. Wrongly as it turned out. I am capable of getting lost on the next island along, the one where Notre Dame was built to tower over the river. s I discovered on the afternoon of my arrival when I passed the same flower shop (Selling flowers to HM Queen Elizabeth as it does), no less than five times. Which was quite tiring and annoying.

Anyway that is not the caution of this cautionary tale.

So I had this small room that at first I did not like because I thought it too small and claustrophobic because it was entered by a door from the small reception area and I wrongly thought that the one window opened onto said-reception area and so could not be opened, and that being next to said-reception area would be noisy and have I mentioned my chronic insomnia and aversion to night-time noises?


And for £256'ish a night, well...

Turned out the little window opened onto this tiny interior courtyard which had fresh air and a means of escape in the event of fire, have I ever told you that my father was a govt health and safety inspector and so self-preservation was taught to me at an early age?

So my small and expensive room was starting to grow on me.

And it grew on me even more on Sunday morning when this breakfast was delivered to me in bed.

But I digress, as ever.

On Sunday morning I set off for Le Marais, the district of the city that was once a mosquito-infested swamp and then the Jewish quarter and latterly an area where the well-heeled like to live. I was going to La Place des Voges because that's where the Victor Hugo house is situated and I thought it would be nice to return for a third visit.

I found it without getting lost. Either my lost sense of direction had been found or I was becoming accustomed to getting around Paris on foot. It helped that I knew which side of the river to head for. The right bank, by the way.

So I visited Victor Hugo's Paris apartment and an exhibition of art made by the patients of asylums for the insane (their description) which was both fascinating and disturbing, and I ate French onion soup and fish and chips for lunch in a place in the Place...

And I even saw a chap, an artist who, thirteen years ago during my last trip there sold me four prints, gave me his business card and suggested we share 'a moment' next time I was in Paris, but cautioned me to ring the phone number he wrote on one of the prints lest his wife answer the other phone.

Yes, really, that happened to me in Paris! Propositioned by a painter.

I did not want to run into him again, not now I am a 'senior' and showing my age but I saw him, he was flirting with a woman from a gallery near to where he'd set up his stall under the covered pathway. Readers, he has also aged considerably, possibly less well than me.

I still didn't stop to speak to him.

Anyway, after all that I was going to visit that famous Parisian bookstore Shakespeare and Company so I trotted back to the Seine, flooded by winter rains...

And it was just after taking this picture that I was approached by a charming young woman with a clipboard and a pen.
Would I sign a petition for deaf babies?
Of course I would, I said as I took the clipboard from her and then I noticed that other people signing had given a donation for the 'deaf babies'. May I please see your id that shows you are legitimately collecting money for these deaf babies, I asked her in French.
She didn't like that. She made excuses. Just one euro, she begged, for the deaf babies.
No id, no donation, I told her.
She was furious, snatched her clipboard and pen from me and stalked off.
Or so I thought... 

I had just taken this picture outside the bookstore when I noticed a couple of women standing close behind me. And then another two on either side of me. I began to feel uneasy. Then another woman started to approach me from the front, smiling and looking for all the world like a nice lady.

Just like the one with the clipboard and pen.
I moved to one side and walked away from the store.
When I turned to look back they were following me.

You know when the hairs on the back of your neck stand up and your stomach flips?
That 'fight or flight instinct'?

The smiling woman was again in front of me and the other four were crowding me. It was obvious she was going to distract me and they were going to snatch my camera and bag. The bag containing my passport, driving licence, credit cards, keys, cash...

I kicked the woman in front of me on the shin and at the same time I shouted, 'GO AWAY! LEAVE ME ALONE! THIEVES!'

And they fled. Vanished. Into thin air. Just like that. 

As did I. Into the bookstore, where I sat on a stool in a corner until I'd stopped shaking.

I was so close to being mugged, possibly also stabbed because you can bet your bottom dollar if one of them had tried to take my bag I'd have fought back.

It was terrifying.
At the time. Later, when I was safely back in the hotel and waiting for a taxi to the station - I was not going to risk running into them again on the metro - it occurred to me that they'd done me a huge favour.

You see they had threatened me, they had almost mugged me, they could even have killed me.
But they didn't because I realised what was happening and I stopped them.
And that was a huge thing for me because for the first time in my life I felt like a survivor.

Monday, 19 February 2018

L'Abbé Pierre and Emmaüs

I first 'met' l'Abbé Pierre back in 1995.

I was studying my first Open University course, Cadences, encouraged by my best friend Jeannie who was already a pretty fluent French speaker. We'd met at an Italian class and discovered that we were soul sisters, and we studied together for the Institute of Linguist Italian exams together. That led to me embarking on French and her starting to study for her French degree.

Jeannie died fifteen years ago, before completing her studies, while I went on to earn my degree in 2012, in French and English, of course, I did it for my friend as much as for myself.

Since 2015 I have also shared the breast cancer that killed Jeannie, life has a wicked sense of humour, I think.

I digress, as ever, but with good reason.

L'Abbé Pierre will always, in my mind, be associated with Jeannie, so who was he?

He has been variously described as: The French Mother Theresa, The Conscience Of A Country, A Living Saint.

L'Abbé Pierre (born Henri Antoine Grouès; 5 August 1912 - 22 January 2007) was a French Catholic priest, member of the Resistance during the World War II, and deputy of the Popular Republican Movement (MRP). He founded in 1949 the Emmaus movement, which has the goal of helping the poor, the homeless and the refugees.  (Wikipedia)

Abbé means abbot in French, and is also used as a courtesy title given to Catholic priests. He was one of the most popular figures in France, he probably still is.

For me it was the Emmaus organisation that first attracted my attention even before I knew that he had been a Resistance hero, had saved the lives of French Jews, been decorated etc etc.. Before I had learned of his efforts across the globe to relieve suffering and bring joy.

The winter of 1954 was bitterly cold in France and the homeless were freezing to death on the streets so L'Abbé Pierre broadcast the following radio appeal:

"My friends, come help... 
A woman froze to death tonight at 3:00 am, on the pavement of Sebastopol Boulevard, clutching the eviction notice which the day before had made her homeless... 

Each night, more than two thousand succumb to the cold, dying without food, without bread, many almost naked... 

Hear me; in the last three hours, two aid centers have been created: one under canvas at the foot of the Pantheon on Montagne Sainte-Genevieve Street; the other in Courbevoie. They are already overflowing, we must open more, in every neighbourhood. Tonight, in every town in France, in every quarter of Paris, we must hang out placards in the night, under a lamp, at the door of places where there are blankets, straw, soup; where one may read, under the title 'Fraternal Aid Center', these simple words: 'If you suffer, whoever you are, enter, eat, sleep, recover hope, here you are loved'.

The forecast is for a month of freezing weather. For as long as the winter lasts, for as long as the centres exist, faced with their brothers dying in poverty, all mankind must be of one will: the will to make this situation impossible. 

I beg of you, let us love one another enough to do it now. From so much pain, let a wonderful thing be given unto us: the shared spirit of France. Thank you! 

Everyone can help those who are homeless. We need, tonight, and at the latest tomorrow, five thousand blankets, three hundred big American tents, and two hundred catalytic stoves. Bring them quickly to the Hôtel Rochester, number ninety-two, laq Boetie The rendez-vous for volunteers and trucks to carry them; tonight at eleven, in front of the tent on Montagne Sainte-Genevieve. 

Thanks to you, no man, no child, will sleep on the asphalt or on the waterfronts of Paris tonight. 

Thank you" 

This speech touched the heart and conscience of a nation and resulted in an "uprising of kindness" (insurrection de la misère) with a staggering 500 million francs being raised in donations. A few weeks later, in March 1954, the Emmaus community was created with volunteers to assist the homeless by providing them with food and a roof over their heads and, more importantly, somewhere to work to raise the money to pay for the community.

In time many of the sans-abri became, themselves, volunteers in accordance with l'Abbé Pierre's desire to show that even those who have nothing, who are totally destitute, can still help others... no-one is completely helpless or without worth.

There were many, many other humanitarian roles upon which l'Abbé Pierre embarked. He travelled to the countries where he was needed and he wrote books, lectured and taught his message of love and charity and providing people with the means to help themselves.

His was a life of action and service rather than words and rhetoric.

So, if you do only one thing today to benefit others... If you take only one small step, please, read more about l'Abbé Pierre and see if his life doesn't provide you with the inspiration to help others and if his story doesn't make you feel humble and grateful for whatever you have been granted in this life then nothing ever will.

Thursday, 8 February 2018

Plastic Planet

Many people have watched Blue Planet and seen the problems of plastic pollution in the seas.

Plastic that can last for 1000 years.
Plastic that kills marine life.
Plastic that enters the food chain.
Plastic that we, too, consume.

People, I cannot tell you how much I have fretted and stressed over the state of the planet for decades. Really, decades. At least forty decades. And of course I have supported environmental organisations - Greenpeace, WWF, Friends of the Earth, and I have sponsored tigers, polar bears, snow leopards, orangutans, and paid to protect acres of rainforests in Africa and South America.

And I still pay a monthly donation to The Rainforest Alliance

And all of that is good.
But sometimes a person needs to do something practical, personally, because sometimes that is what is really required.

Today was one such day.

I woke to beautiful blue skies and sunshine reflecting off the snow that still covers my garden and roof and the tops of the cars, and I decided it had been too many days since I had been to Tregastel, having spent a lot of time walking the beach at Les Rosaires, and so, Tregastel it was to be.

I'd forgotten how special that place is...


It was cold, very cold, too cold, A strong wind was blowing from the north. I sat on a pink granite bench to sip my coffee and had to wrap a blanket round my legs and sit on my gloves to keep me warm. Bit it was bright and sunny and the tide was in and the water looked lovely and I was content.

We'll walk on the sand, I decided, screwing the top on my flask and calling Tashi, too cold to swim with that stiff breeze but a walk will warm us up.

We descended onto the sand and then I noticed it: plastic, everywhere I looked, strips of blue plastic string tangled in the seaweed, bits of plastic fishing nets mimicking that seaweed, plastic cups lying on the sand like empty crab shells, plastic bottle tops sticking out of the sand like unnatural seashells,  even a large, algae-covered plastic oil container like some monster from the deep.

Plastic, plastic everywhere.

I returned to the car to fetch my shopping bag.
The one I had brought along for the pine cones that I collect for fire-lighting. They are excellent natural fire lighters and not toxic like the paraffin-base ones.

And Tashi and I set off to walk the length of the beach and back again and in an hour I had cleared it of every single piece of plastic, and some wire mesh too...

I had half-filled my shopping bag with small pieces of plastric,  it would have overflowed had I crammed all of the rubbish into it.

My favourite beach was now clean and tidy once more and all of that plastic and wire that I put into the bin by the car would never again pollute the sea.

We set off to collect those pine cones, round to the next beach, admiring the views which are really very lovely, especially when the tide is high...

and we set off walking on the beach...

I like this one because there are interesting little channels and grooves in the sand and when the tide is in it makes pretty patterns and soothing sounds as it laps against the sand.

I sometimes sit and close my eyes and listen to it and it is better than any man-made meditation music you could ever buy.

And then we set off walking and, horror!

More rubbish.
Much more rubbish.
Much, much more rubbish.

At first I was disheartened.
So much rubbish and only one small woman and her dog to collect it.
Then I remembered the story of the beach covered with dying starfish and how it doesn't matter if you can't save every starfish, it matters that you care enough to save at least one.

So I set to cleaning that beach too and more than filled my shopping bag with rubbish - mostly plastic but also that boot, lots of wire mesh in rolls, glass bottles and even a light bulb!

And I lugged my load of rubbish back to the bin that was way back at the start of the beach and pushed as much in as I could manage, and left the rest safely stacked next to it.

It took me another whole hour to clean that beach and I was exhausted by the time I'd finished.
Exhausted but content.

I know it was a mere drop in the ocean.

Our seas are heavily polluted with plastic and other rubbish, what I did was nothing but, I cleaned two beautiful beaches and I stopped all of that plastic from returning to the sea during the next high tide and maybe, just maybe, my doing that saved some marine creature from either consuming it or from getting tangled in it and drowning.

Maybe I saved a starfish.

And that thought made my wrinkly old eyes twinkle!

You know, if we all did just a little bit every day, whether by turning off those electrical currents, by reducing our fossil fuel consumption, by sending a dollar a day to an eco charity, by picking up plastic on the beach, we could heal this beautiful planet together.

N'est-ce pas?

Wednesday, 13 December 2017

Back to basics

I don't know of this will be permanent but for now I am musing, meandering and meditating back on my original blog...

Seems appropriate somehow

Saturday, 4 November 2017

Wild swimming...

I've always enjoyed swimming, ever since my parents took me to the local swimming pool when I was young and, if my memory serves me well, that was so long ago that the changing cubicles were small and curtained and situated all round the pool, so if you were not careful you could inadvertently expose your bare bum to the swimmers. Not a problem for a five-year-old, not so good for her mother when said-offspring whipped the curtain back before she'd finished dressing.

That happened often.
I was impatient as a child.
Still am, a little, although I am learning to slow down.

We swam in the sea during trips to Cornwall. The funny thing is that when I think back to my childhood holidays they always seemed to have involved Cornwall and clotted cream and sandy toes and freckles and the taste of salt on my lips. And pasties and pixies, mustn't forget them. But we only ever went there twice so either I have very selective memories or it made a huge impression on me; I suspect the latter, holidays were a rare treat when I was growing up because time was in abundance but money was not. A happier situation, I think, on reflection.

When we lived on the Rock of Gibraltar my school took us swimming once a week. All year round, In the sea, But not the sea as I would describe it, no sandy beaches and gentle waves. We were given swimming lessons at a slightly oily, smelly marina place near the harbour. It was unpleasant. I learned to swim fast to get my lengths done so that I could get out.

Back in England Hertfordshire my grammar school had its own swimming pool and I, having been taught to dive from high rocks and the end of the jetty at the RAF swimming bay in Gibraltar, was selected for high-diving lessons. That impressed everyone, except me, I wanted to be in the water not constantly entering and leaving it.
I taught The Ragazzi to swim as soon as they'd had their first inoculations, but here I am droning on with a history of my family's attachment to water when I just meant to say that yesterday, November 3rd, I went swimming in the sea at the north Brittany coast.

And loved it.

I've been to Tregastel regularly since I came back here in June and most times I have swum, but that was when the weather was warmer. Now we're into autumn with a vengeance and so for the last few trips each time that I have swum I've declared it to have been my last swim of the year. Until the next trip when I've just had to have one more swim.

Yesterday the weather forecast was for rain at the coast but I was feeling twitchy and my feet were feeling itchy so I thought I'd pack a picnic and the dog and head north anyway. I had my riding coat in case the forecast was correct and I thought I could walk on the sand and enjoy lunch in the car and at least I'd be out of the house.

This was what was awaiting me...

Rain? What rain?
The day was gloriously sunny, albeit a little misty at first but then misty mornings are made for the seaside, aren't they?

Tashi and I set off walking round the corner to the next beach to see if there was any sea there. There wasn't. It was far out, low tide, not to be seen.

So we set off across the sand to search for seashells because I love collecting stuff when I am rambling around. Empty seashells for me, inhabited ones for my fellow-hunter-gatherers...

I'm not a fan of little winkly things in shells, at least not when they're on my dinner plate and especially if they are still alive when they are being consumed, but I am a huge fan of fucus and eat it whenever I can and if I can't then I pause to photograph it and to admire it.

This is the result of a biology, or was it geography, field trip on which my Northumbrian grammar school took the fifth-formers. It was to the coast for a week, so the topic I chose for my project was seaweed. Fascinating stuff, and very good to eat if you chose the right type and the right location.  

Our ramblings took us out to the castle and it being very low tide I thought it would be interesting to see what is on the other side of the little island, the side I never see from the beach.

Well! Look what we found! A beautiful sandy beach.

But it was lunchtime so we headed back to the car for our picnic and a little rest from clambering over rocks and wading though seaweed and accidentally falling into a rock pool and getting our feet soaked. (Yes, that was me, not the dog, he is much too sensible to step where it's wet.)

We sat in the car and indulged in some people-watching.

A trio of young people who had become stranded by the incoming tide and been obliged to strip and wade back to the beach with their clothes held above their heads. They passed the car half an hour later, still soaking wet and clad in thongs and T-shirts and and with their backpacks on their heads but laughing as they walked up the road away from the parked cars.

A family parked next to my car and set off to explore the rocks, Papa taking pictures while his Papa held onto the little girl ...

And then this happened and I was captivated and, it must be said, green with envy.

I mean, it's wonderful to swim with the pink castle as a backdrop and fantastic to be able to admire it between my feet as I float but, to be able to ride into the sea on horseback, well, that would really make me smile...

But, envy is a deadly sin and if I want my own horse there is absolutely nothing to stop me from finding one, except for the slight worry that I may not be around to look after it for that long and what would happen then?

I slipped into a swimsuit and pulled a sweater on top and walked down to the tide line to test the water temperature.

It was cold. Very cold. Too cold for a swim, I convinced myself.

And then a man who was wearing jeans, a sweater, a coat and wellington boots called out to ask me, in French, if I was going to plunge right in? And was I mad? And I decided, yes I was, and yes I am so I waded back to my bag on the sand, pulled off my sweater and returned to dive into the sea.

And it was wonderful.


Last swim of the year?
Who knows?
I am ruling out nothing, if we're lucky enough to get another day like yesterday then...

Sunday, 29 October 2017

More guests...

I've had house guests again.

This time only for twenty-four hours: their arrival was delayed by road diversions and a satav failure and getting lost on their journey from Normandy (a foreign country) to Brittany, so we missed out on the planned trip to the Pink Granite Coast and a picnic on the rocks and my (possibly) last swim of the year, tant pis, another time. 

I've known Val for years. At first virtually when she contacted me after reading A Mouse in France because she had her own French house not too far away near Huelgoat, and then we met for real in Oxford, took a weekend trip to Glastonbury and finally I made it to Cornwall where she now lives. But this was the first time I had welcomed her (and her son) to my home. I should explain that Val has a very busy life, so busy that after I have read one of her Facebook posts detailing her morning routine I am so tired I have to go for a lie down to recover.

Well, they arrived and we sat down with tea and cakes to start talking and I that, the talking, sharing ideas, experiences, trials, tribulations and triumphs.

And we continued talking over dips and tacos and an aperitif...

And over a chilli and rice dinner with wine, and the chocolate cake and tea for afters...

And as we walked Tashi round the village before the streetlights went out at 10 pm...

And then this morning we went to La Vallée des Saints in the rain where I was able to have my now-customary chat with Saint Melar while Tashi sniffed the grass...

And we were introduced to a new saint - Alar, patron saint of horses, which is why he's shown here at the forge. A most appropriate saint for a pony-mad kid of a certain age...

while other horse lovers rode past...
How nice that would be, I said to Val, riding round the statues on horseback!

Val likes my house, which makes me happy.
It is at its best when filled with friends.

Saturday, 16 September 2017

The Real-Life Tour Guide

Maggie and I had a blast during her six days with me and I really enjoyed being her real-life tour guide. playmate and fellow adventurer.

Too busy to blog, too busy to write my journal, even too busy to work on my TEFL course so here, in a few selected pictures is where we went and what we did...


and swimmers...

and sight-seers...

and shoppers...

and 'splorers...