La Belle France (from "Ribbentrop's Chair")
La Belle France
“As if telling the beads of a rosary, she (Lea) ran her fingers over the necklace which Cheri had tossed on the bed. She put it away at night now because, with his passion for fine pearls and his fondness for playing with them in the morning, he would have noticed too often that her throat had thickened and was not nearly so white, with the muscles under its skin growing slack.” (Colette, “Cheri”)
I love the way the French grow attached to old objects, however humble and utilitarian. Flea markets infest town squares and rivers banks all through the summer. Old kitchen implements are coveted – particularly battered enamelware that bears the imprint of busy hands preparing daily meals. It takes time and patience to discover the accrued qualities of these objects and form relationships with them. Some people buy and cherish old potato sacks stamped with the name of their farm and pay good money for red and white table cloths, irredeemably frayed and wine-stained; cracked tortoiseshell salad servers, chipped spice jars, limbless dolls with painted hair, chairs with broken cane seats, old powder boxes - still dusty and toppling towers of rust-encrusted copper pans, while the tourists - a vital element of this market economy – pounce on pseudo Lalique and Galle for the gullible. There are also thousands of books on every subject under the sun and for the sharp-eyed, leather-bound Maupassants and even first edition Sartres. And who can explain the countless images and effigies of Christ and the Virgin Mary, forever gazing upwards? Discarded by some, collected by others, are they reminders of childhood, when these icons once represented universal truths?
There’s a thriftiness associated with this old form of exchange - waste not, want not - and a desire to resurrect.
There was a flea market last week at Montsoreau – a limestone town carved from the banks of the lazy Loire. Mile-high hollyhocks everywhere. Scorched vineyards, hedgerows entangled with heat-bloated roses, the unexpected sapphire “pop” of cornflowers on the verges. A flock of folded black umbrellas, freed from their owners, rested from their migrations under a grove of plane trees and something inconsequential briefly caught my eye: a plaster-pink jug with raised white waves and sailing ships circling its fat belly. We have far too many jugs at home.
Why this selective, backward-glancing view of time? This passion for all things ancient also extends to French taste in music: there seem to be whole radio channels devoted to pop music of the 1950s and 60s: or contemporary music that just sounds that way. Songs which are more about the words than the tune. Jacques Trennet, Serge Gainsborough, Jacques Brel: such loyalty to old idols. And music my grandfather would have listened to - melodies played on the accordion; French opera sung with much vibrato. It is reassuring to know that whenever we come back the same old songs will be playing on one channel or another.
Many French songs extol the romance of the river Seine. My family arrived in Paris at the turn of the century and fell in love with the city and after two generations considered themselves thoroughly French - but they were sold down the river.
There is a little memorial built by Charles de Gaulle, the Memorial des Martyrs overlooking the Seine on the Ile de la Cite behind Notre Dame which commemorates the 75,000 “deported” from Vichy France.
My Cousin Jean wrote next to the names of certain aunts, uncles and cousins on our family tree: “died in deportation” (a euphemism invented by the French government). Their names are also carved on our family’s tomb in the Pantin Cemetery north east of Paris, although they are rapidly fading as acid rain erodes the limestone.
Is French nostalgia a longing for the time before the Age of Ambivalence?
How quickly and easily France’s guilt was buried after the war under a freshly-painted cultural identity: the Hollywood Film Set version. Suddenly Paris was reborn in Rouault’s tear-stained townscapes, Juliette Greco’s style (it can’t have been her voice), Maurice Chevalier’s smile (the jury’s out on Chevalier), that naïve courtesan Gigi whom all little post-war girls, including myself, wanted to be and Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron dressed as Harlequin and Columbine dancing around the fountain in the Tuilerie garden. Actually the subtext of An American in Paris is all about prostitution: of one’s art or one’s body, in exchange for security, success, or simply a bite to eat.
My first trip to Paris was as a tiny girl of two, riding in the bucket seat of Cousin Bernard’s two-seater M.G. following other laughing cousins crammed into a Citroen van driven by Serge (back from Brazil) at breakneck speed through the cobblestoned streets; the proud remnants of the family Avadis relieved to be alive and determined to reclaim Paris as their own. I remember sitting on Bernard’s lap at a street cafe; my first taste of chickory coffee; the pungent smell of Gaulloises smoked by everyone.
Another early memory is of my grandparents’ farmhouse in Aujerus, Normandy (bought as a holiday home), chasing chickens in the barn, watching honey being spun and eating it straight off the comb.
There was a photograph taken by Uncle Jacques of us all sitting in the sun: Aunt Raymonde, Grandpa Marcus (with me on his knee),Grandma Sadie, Dad and Mum, now heavily and happily pregnant with my sister Jackie.
There were greengage trees in the front garden which I would climb, on subsequent visits, with the farmer’s daughter. We ate so many greengages we were sick.
Laurie’s painstakingly and lovingly restored farmhouse in the Valle de Loire in which I now sit and the countryside around it closely resemble the house and landscape of my childhood summers. Here, too, the green-gold leaves of the poplars lining the avenues clatter like newly-minted coins, and a lavender storm blows outside the door.
The countryside here is perfectly flat and at night because there are no street lights, the broad sky is replete with stars. If you close your eyes and listen carefully you can hear a myriad of small sounds usually lost to the human ear.
It’s hard to imagine these wheatfields, vineyards and ancient forests ringing with gunshots and imbued with danger. How dreadful it must have been to live in constant fear of capture.
My most vivid teenage memories are of Paris. I still retain those intense impressions – the meaty aroma of the salmon pink leather belt bought in a street market to clasp tight cord jeans around my slim waist; the eager kisses of that blond boy with the silk neck scarf – what was his name? Phil? There were quite a few Phils in those days. The first time I saw the gardens of Versailles stretching to infinity I sat down on the steps of the Grand Trianon and wept.
We English despoil and devour France with our cars and cameras, our stomachs, eyes and minds. Louche, voluptuous, unfaithful France, over-ripe and frayed at the edges like Collette’s Lea. A painting caught in the rain, France blurs into decay. Here it always feels like the end of an era.