Friday, June 20, 2014

On the Road - the funny little incidentals



Carnac - Brittany, France
Since heading back to France with my lovely daughter Rose after participating in the AusNZ Literary Festival, we’ve been logging up many hundreds of kilometres in the car (thanks to Brian’s heroic driving marathons!) as we visit sites relevant to my research. We’ve seen many extraordinary sights, from legions of standing stones at Carnac (in Brittany) to the magnificence of Chartres Cathedral’s exquisite stained glass windows, and the glorious châteaus of the Loire Valley. Castles, churches, abbeys, medieval towns and horizon-defying fields of wheat and barley . . . there has almost been an overload of beauty and jaw-dropping ‘wow’ moments, both exhilarating and exhausting.

I don’t think I truly appreciated the size of the country – how plotting a proposed itinerary on a map bears no relationship to the huge distances we’ve had to cross to visit the places I needed to etch into my mind’s eye if I have any hope of bringing Héloise story to life.

But, despite the tiredness and the odd scratchy outburst, it’s been a rich and productive time, with the shape and scope of the book starting to reveal itself to me, plus the voice and tone now cemented into a first paragraph that will guide me forwards when I finally sit down to the writing (probably next year, given the vast amount of research I still have left to tackle.)

Rather than go through each beautiful place and drown you in dozens of photographs, this time I’d like to just share with you a few random and unexpected moments that stay with me as we near ‘home.’

1: In the beautiful medieval town of Bernay, upon finding the 12th century church I had hoped to visit all locked up, I requested of the lady at the next door museum reception if there was any chance of being allowed to have a look inside (with the aid of mime, doe-eyed pleading and Google Translate!)

To my surprise and delight she promptly produced a giant key and led us outside and over to the huge locked doors. Inside, the church has been stripped right back to its bare bones, so that the beautiful skeleton of it is revealed. The gorgeous vaulted ceilings and strong supporting pillars create their own sense of grandeur, with no decoration required to cause the heart to sing.

In fact, after seeing more churches in the last ten days than most people will see in their entire lifetime, I can honestly say this is the one that has moved me the most. Its starkness allowed the beauty of the architecture to shine through, celebrating the wonderful creativity and skill of the people who had the vision to create such a remarkable structure nearly one thousand years ago! One thousand years! Gobsmacking.

Phil the French Farmer!
Mandy the Swinger!
2. We had the great pleasure of being hosted for three days by the lovely NZ writer Phillip Mann in his home-away-from-home in Choussy, right in the centre of the Loire Valley. It was a very welcome respite from the soullessness of cheap hotels and the interminable driving. Phil took us to a restaurant known only to those who live nearby, the set menu prepared by a local woman now well into her eighties. The place was packed with locals, including workmen in the area, all delighting in indescribably delicious course after course of slow cooked magic, accompanied by a bottomless jug of local wine with liqueurs to finish. Two hours later we staggered back to Phil’s house, stuffed to the gills (and more than a little tipsy), past fields either golden with ripe wheat or bursting with seedling sunflowers. I made straight for the hammock under a large chestnut tree and promptly fell straight to sleep! No further food (or drink) was necessary that day!

As evening slowly tiptoed in (it doesn’t grow dark there until at least 10.30pm) we watched a brave band of tiny house-martins, whose nests adorn the rafters of the old barn, dive bomb an approaching cat until it finally gave up and slunk away, thanks to their epic Lilliputian battle against this dangerous feral foe. A good analogy to remember when we feel powerless against the corporate machine or bloody right-wing governments, perhaps?

3. Speaking of corporate machines and powerlessness, we’ve been confronted several times by the presence of huge stacks from nuclear power stations, rising out of the gorgeous countryside and spewing forth steam like chimneys venting straight from Hell. Every time we came close I felt myself tense up. 

In discussion with a French couple at the B&B where we were staying at the time of the first sighting, they disclosed that these plants caused them no particular concern. In fact they were quite proud, declaring that these were the safest and most up-to-date nuclear facilities in Europe, and that less than 5% of people there had any issue with them. Perhaps this is true, but it certainly didn’t stop my skin crawling each time I spotted one, and I found it particularly ironic, given the pristine nature of the surrounding farms, which appear much more organic, healthy and sensibly stocked than our own environmentally unfriendly farming practices. 

Two more quick anecdotes:

4. Crawling down the motorway, cars lined up three lanes deep as the result of an accident up ahead. The inside lane was duly closed, so we were further bunched up into the remaining two. Further along, past the first markers to keep us out of the lane had dwindled to none (and despite the fact that we were clearly still to leave that particular lane empty) impatient drivers started disregarding this fact and speeding along this empty outer lane. Two cars ahead of us the driver of a white van clearly took exception to this situation and pulled out into said lane. He then proceeded to slow right down, so that nothing could get past him, and no one was going to go any faster than the two other crawling lanes these drivers were so blatantly trying to beat! The guy in the car behind started having a high blood pressure attack, his poor wife clearly getting an earful as he railed and cursed at the self appointed traffic control van for the next twenty minutes, until this second lane was reduced down to one and they both had to merge. Mr White Van was duly let in with ease, all of us silently cheering his wonderful gesture, while Mr Pushy had to barge his way in as each of us, I’m sure, was muttering ‘I’m not letting that bastard in!’

Later, once the traffic was flowing freely again, we passed Mr White Van and applauded him out the window, followed by a cheery thumbs-up. His smile was a treasure to behold!

Last one . . .

5. In a gorgeous little medieval village (a world heritage site) called Provins, we spent a day at a medieval festival. I had hoped it would help me recreate with some authenticity the smells, sights, colours, and feel of medieval life. No such luck! Instead, it was like walking into the dress-up day at sci-fi convention Armageddon or a Lord of the Rings tribute day. What struck me was how easily it could have been NZ; how the same types of people (same faces, hair-dos, body piercings, tattoos, body-types, proclivities) are replicated across the world. It was just as well Saint Peter Jackson wasn’t there (or his mates at Warner Bros.) He’d no doubt have sued them all for breach of copyright.
 
But, hey, people were happy. Nerds and nerdettes strolled hand in hand, knights sweltered in their shiny armour, much beer was drunk and many little piggies were slaughtered for the greater good. . . So, why let research get in the way of good day? It’s nice to see people genuinely enjoying themselves and throwing off convention. Not giving a damn. You’ve gotta love the creative spirit that allows grown men and women to pin on elf ears and lace themselves into a leather bodice for a spot of fun. If I’d had more warning I reckon I’d have given it a go. What the hell? When in Provins . . .


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