Sunday, 28 April 2013

Sur La Plage Bonaparte

When people want to visit the war museums and cemeteries of Northern France they generally head for the coastal towns of Normandy where there are an abundance of sites dedicated to those who fought on French soil....

But in Brittany there are reminders everywhere of the bravery of the Breton people
A stone cross by the roadside to mark the spot where the entire male population of a village was shot by the Nazis in punishment for the shooting of one of its officers....
A memorial erected to the men and women of the Resistance...
A single rose placed by a stream on Remembrance Sunday
The people of Brittany did not submit to German occupation lightly

In a couple of weeks The Ragazza and I will be making our first trip of the year to our home in Brittany, and so I am planning a few days out in order to make the most of our time. I've already set aside a full day for a visit to Océanopolis, the aquarium just outside Brest, inspired by our love of the sea and its treasures, and a return to l'Île de Bréhat which is so beautiful and so relaxing, but I thought I'd also take her to La Plage Bonaparte and teach her a little about the heroism of the Breton people during the second World War... 

"En novembre 1943, deux Franco-canadiens Lucien Dumais et Raymond Labrosse viennent organiser et diriger le réseau " Shelburn ", le le but est de récupérer le personnel navigant des avions alliés abattus en France, et de lui permettre de rejoindre l'Angleterre.

La formation de ce personnel est en effet longue et coûteuse et leur retour Outre-Manche d'autant plus important.

Recueillis en différents points de France, les aviateurs étaient convoyés en train jusqu'aux gares de Saint-Brieuc et Guingamp puis, hébergés dans plusieurs maisons de la région.

De la ils étaient regroupés pour l'embarquement dans la maison de J. Gicquel située à deux kilomètres environ de l'Anse Cochât, plage choisie pour les opérations d'évacuation.

Sous la conduite de Plouhatins connaissant bien les falaises, 20 à 25 aviateurs se rendaient par la lande, à travers des champs de mines, jusqu'à la plage, d'où, à bord d'embarcations en caoutchouc, ils rejoignaient la corvette anglaise qui tous feux éteints mouillait au large.

Le jour prévu pour l'opération était annoncé par la radio anglaise par un message comme :

" Bonjour à tous dans la maison d'Alphonse "

II restait ensuite 180 km à parcourir avant de rejoindre les côtes anglaises.

Cette opération Bonaparte fut menée à bien, huit fois, de janvier à août 1944, permettant d'embarquer 135 personnes, aviateurs américains et canadiens ainsi que des agents secrets.

Elle put réussir grâce au courage et au dévouement de Plouhatins, de Plouhatines mais aussi de plusieurs personnes de la région qui au risque de leur vie, hébergèrent et convoyèrent les aviateurs alliés.

De la maison d'Alphonse, brûlée par les Allemands, il ne reste que quelques pierres."

(Thanks To This Site)

Between January and August, 1944, a total of 135 American and Canadian airmen who had been shot down by the Germans, were secretly taken through these cliffs on dark and moonless nights to await the small boats that would carry them to safety across the channel


The sign reads:

From this beach l'Anse Cochat, now known as Bonaparte Beach, 135 allied airmen shot down on French soil by the Nazis secretly boarded boats for England during the dark nights of 1944.

Thank you to the Resistance of the Shelburn Network of Plouma and of the local area who helped them

Another plaque on the wall of the tunnel read:

The Royal Air Forces Escaping Committee
(Canadian Branch)
Thanks to the Resistance movement and people of this area for their aid in helping Canadian airmen escape or evade capture during 1939-1945


This is Bonaparte Beach

Covered in large pebbles that are difficult to walk on, especially when a strong tide is tugging at your feet

A sheer granite wall to your back and crumbling earth on one side

It is small and secluded and very vulnerable to attack from the surrounding cliffs

This is the beach to which groups of airmen were brought in the dead of night. They had been gathered from all over France, brought to Brittany, hidden in the homes, barns and sheds of the local Bretons and then, when the signal went out
"Hello to everyone in Alphone's house", they were escorted here to await their rescue

Can you imagine standing on the large stones and pebbles of the beach, the tide at your feet, gazing out to sea, your heart pounding with stress, every nerve in your body taut with fear, a prayer on your lips as you listen for the sound of an approaching boat

and praying all the while that you will not be discovered by the enemy because, believe me, once you were on this beach there would have been only one way out alive....

I had thought, briefly, that there should be blood-red poppies pushing through the earth at this spot...

And then I reflected a little more...

From this beach 135 allied airmen were plucked to safety

This is not a place of mourning but of celebration for the bravery of the allied airmen who joined the fight to liberate France, and for the courage of the men and women of Brittany who, in gratitude, risked their lives to send them to safety in England

It is fitting that the cliffs are, today, a veritable wild flower meadow

 I get quite cross when people joke about the part that the French people played in the two World Wars, in fact I become very indignant.

If I could take each one of them to La Plage Bonaparte and tell them the stories associated with this place then I think that they would be a little more respectful of the brave people of Brittany.

PS On a purely personal note, while composing this post I was viewing the photographs that I took during a visit in June 2008. And in the folder was a short video clip that I'd obviously recorded without realizing it, in which my former partner can be heard quite clearly chatting to me as we walked back from the beach. It took me totally unaware, like the sudden appearance of a ghostly image, this voice from the past...      

Saturday, 27 April 2013

Great Thinkers - Michel de Montaigne

On Thursday I met someone new and quite fascinating...
Well, when I say that I met him, it would be more accurate to say that I was introduced to him by the BBC Radio Four series In Our Time, wonderful programmes that cover all manner of topics and which are available as podcasts to download, which I do, weekly, in addition to a dozen or so from Radio France Culture.  
 Michel de Montaigne 1.jpg

 So, this week I listened to an In Our Time episode devoted to Michel de Montaigne.
Rather a good-looking man, I think, not sure about the ruff though

Montaigne lived in sixteenth century France. Happily for him, he was born into a wealthy family that owned vast wine-producing estates in Aquitaine, and a magnificent chateau. He was also born into a world that was changing, expanding, flowering, France was undergoing the Reformation, Europe was opening up to the New Worlds, the Enlightenment was, well, enlightening people, all of which was sowing the seeds for new ideas and a whole new way if thinking. He was a real Renaissance man.

His family name was originally Eyquem, it was his great grandfather who, becoming lord of Montaigne, then acquired the name 'de Montaigne' which marked the family's rise in society. 

Montaigne's father was not considered to have been an educated man, despite his riches, and so he set out to raise his son's status by providing him with an extensive education along humanist lines, which is, perhaps, one of the most important duties of a parent. As a young infant, Montaigne was sent to live with his wet-nurse's family because his father wanted him to understand the common people for whom he would be responsible as a land-owner. On his return to the family home he was taught Latin by a German tutor who spoke no French, and who was ordered only to speak to him in that language, as were the servants and even his mother, which led to him acquiring a fluency by the age of six. He was also taught Greek by means of games and conversation, rather than by formal instruction. Why Latin and Greek? Well, at that time Latin was viewed as a living language by the educated folk, and as with any second language that one acquires, learning to speak it introduced the student to the whole culture of the Roman empire, which, with that of ancient Greece, was held in high esteem by sixteenth century thinkers.

It must have been a wonderful childhood for an intelligent and thoughtful young man, a comfortable life in the family chateau, with tutors employed to educate him and musicians employed to entertain him. It's little wonder that he flourished.

I can't help thinking that the world would be a better place if we all could enjoy such an enriching childhood, not wealthy in financial terms but one that is full of opportunities and experiences and, well one that  opens us up to a world of possibilities.

The beautiful souls are those that are universal, open, and ready for all things...
(Michel de Montaigne)

So, there followed a career, work, such mundane matters, and an arranged marriage to Françoise de la Cassaigne, who was not of his choosing, although they did produce six children, of whom only one survived, and following his death his widow appears to have done a great deal to preserve both his writings, his reputation and his soul. She lived in one of the chateau's towers, he lived in the other, and his mother, who seemed not to have approved of her eldest son's lack of interest in adding to the family's fortunes, occupied the middle ground between them.

Marriage is like a cage; one sees the birds outside desperate to get in, and those inside equally desperate to get out
(Michel de Montaigne)

 Montaigne retired at the age of thirty-eight. He took one of the rooms in his tower as a library, and settled down to think. And because his thoughts were so random and quite prone to wander off along different paths, (and who hasn't experienced that?) he began to make notes in an attempt to control the 'runaway horse of his mind', which became his essays. 

He wrote:
'In the year of Christ 1571, at the age of thirty-eight, on the last day of February, his birthday, Michael de Montaigne, long weary of the servitude of the court and of public employments, while still entire, retired to the bosom of the learned virgins, where in calm and freedom from all cares he will spend what little remains of his life, now more than half run out. If the fates permit, he will complete this abode, this sweet ancestral retreat; and he has consecrated it to his freedom, tranquility, and leisure.’

The essay was a hitherto unknown genre, Montaigne's random writings were the first of their kind because until then no-one really wrote such personal reflections covering so wide a range of topics,which is why they are so fascinating and so influential. If he were alive today he'd be writing an intelligent, informative, but tinged with personal snippets and thoughts, blog, wouldn't he? 

The essays also, of course, provide us with a great many thoughtful quotes.

 Mon opinion est qu’il faut se prêter à autrui et ne se donner qu’à soi-même
(Michel de Montaigne)

I think that it would be rather wonderful to be able to devote one's life to reading, thinking, writing, peaceful pursuits far from the corporate world, ah, the temptation to return to the peace, sanity and beauty of Brittany grows stronger daily

La plupart de nos occupations sont comiques. Il faut jouer notre rôle comme il faut, mais comme le rôle d’un personnage emprunté
(Michel de Montaigne)

 La forme de ma bibliothèque est ronde et n'a de rectiligne que ce qu'il faut à ma table et à mon siege, et elle m'offre dans se courbe, d'un seul regard, tous mes livres rangés sur cinq rayons tout autour.

 As one who not only has a bedroom, kitchen and sitting room  full of books (and let's not mention those in the bathroom), but also a home in France that contains at least four times as many and which are, in that contradictory way of the world, the ones that I often wish to pick up and browse while I'm here in England, I am envious of Montaigne's library. One day my books and I will be reunited under one roof...

Where were we? Illness overcame Montaigne, he succumbed to a kidney disorder which he'd inherited from his paternal genes, and which he refused to entrust to the medical profession. Instead he set off traveling in France, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and Italy, partly in search of a cure, taking the waters in spa resorts such as Bagni di Lucca, but also in a pilgrimage to the Holy House of Loreto, and of course, he wrote extensively about his experiences and of his impressions of the different cultures and customs that he encountered, although he didn't intend for his journal to be published, and so it would not have been, had it not been discovered in a chest and published in 1770 as Journal de Voyage

And then the good people of Bordeaux elected him mayor and he had to return to resume his responsibilities back in France, during which time the Black Death arrived and, as it spread, decimated the population of Europe. It was undoubtedly a difficult time all round.

A man who fears suffering is already suffering from what he fears
(Michel de Montaigne)

In 1592, aged 59, Montaigne died during the celebration of mass that he'd requested. His heart is, apparently, preserved in the church at Saint Michel de Montaigne. I know that I've glossed over a great deal of his life, probably some of the important parts, including his great friendship with Etienne De La Boétie who wrote a brilliant book opposing governments and declaring that the real power lies in the hands of the people, which was rather a radical opinion four hundred years ago, about whom, when Montaigne was asked to explain their bond said

If you press me to say why I loved him, I can say no more than because he was he, and I was I 

 and such was their bond that when, in 1563, La  Boétie lay dying from the plague, Montaigne was at his deathbed.

So, this is my personal view of the man, influenced by those aspects that struck me, his upbringing and education, his withdrawal to his tower to think and to write, his essays that contain much that resonates with me, his fairness and decency and his loyalty to his family, his wife, his religion and his best friend. Montaigne has influenced generations of people, he is considered to have been one of the greatest philosophers of all time, despite his sceptical assertion "What do I know?"     

Le scepticime représente un moment important de l'évolution de Montaigne. La devise qu'il fait graver sur une médaille en 1576 "Que-sais-je" signifie la volonté de rester en doute pour rechercher la vérité. La balance dont les plateaux sont en équilibre, la difficulté de juger.

He was a great believer in 'Live in the Here and Now'.

Rejoice in the things that are present; all else is beyond thee
(Michel de Montaigne) 

 J’ai un dictionnaire tout à fait personnel ; je « passe » le temps quand il est mauvais et désagréable ; quand il est bon, je ne veux pas le « passer », je le goûte à nouveau, je m’y arrête. Il faut « passer » le mauvais en courant et s’arrêter au bon
(Michel de Montaigne)

which is, I think, a pretty good way to approach life
N'est-ce pas?

PS The family chateau was sold in 1860 to one of Napolean III's ministers and unhappily destroyed in a fire in 1885, following which only Montaigne's tower survived, probably not a miraculous event, I daresay les pompiers were ordered to save it before the rest of the building. This is the rather magnificent chateau that was built to replace it

Sunday, 21 April 2013

S is for Scallops...


A scallop is a marine bivalve mollusc of the family Pectinidae.
scallop -> noun 1. an edible bivalve mollusc with a ribbed fan-shaped shell. Scallops swim by rapidly opening and closing the shell-valves.
# short for SCALLOP SHELL
# a small pan or dish shaped like a scallop shell and used for baking or serving food
2. (usu. scallops) each of a series of convex rounded projections forming an ornamental edging cut in material or worked in lace or knitting in imiation of the edge of a scallop shell.
3. another term for ESCALOPE

-> verb (scallops, scalloping, scalloped)
1. [with obj] scalloped ornament (an edge or material) with scallops
# cut, shape or arrange in the form of a scallop shell
2. scalloping gather or dredge for scallops
3 bake with milk or a sauce: [as adj] scalloped

- DERIVATIVES scalloper noun
- ORIGIN Middle English: shortening of Old French escalope, probably of Germanic origin. The verb dates from the 18th century

(That's for those of us who like words, courtesy of the Oxford Dictionary of English)

For the biologists:

Scallops are hermaphrodites; capable of switching sexes. Both sexes produce roe, whose coloring depends upon the parent's (current) sex. Red roe is that of a female, and white, that of a male. 

After fertilisation scallop ova sink to the bottom of the sea. After several weeks, the immature scallop hatches and the larvae drift until settling to the bottom again to grow. They reach sexual maturity after several years, though they may not reach a commercially harvestable size until six to eight years of age. 

Scallops may live up to 18 years, with their age reflected in the annuli, the concentric rings of their shells.(Wikedpedia)

The environmental mayhem wrought by commercial scallop fishing is truly terrible.
Large boats dredge the sand, scraping up everything in their path, destroying countless communities of sea creatures, laying bare huge swathes of the seabed.

Here's a link to a video of one such dredge, courtesy of Greenpeace.
In addition to being so destructive, dredged scallops can spend anything up to two weeks languishing in the bottom of the boat before they even make it to terra firma and your dinner plate, during which time the flesh begins to deteriorate.

So read this interview with a scallop diver Tim Hunt and take heart

One fascinating fact about scallops is that they have many, many eyes...

The eyes are very tiny, and occur along the curved edges of the shell, just inside, about one eye per shell corrugation. Each eye is rather remarkably like a certain kind of reflecting telescope complete with a spherical mirror to reflect incoming light rays onto a retina, after being corrected for spherical aberration by passing through a lens
(From Everything 2)

Personally I'm bit of a shell-person and scallop shells are, to my thinking, The Epitome of A Sea-Shell. Keep your conches, wave away your winkle shells, lose those limpets, give me a scallop shell anyday.

I've used scallop shells as ashtrays, bead boxes, pin holders and, of course, serving plates for seafood dishes back in the 70's when we ate prawn cocktail on a bed of that nasty iceberg lettuce as a starter for quite a few of the dinner parties that we hosted. The main course was probably a veal scallop and scalloped potatoes and desert, a pie with a scalloped edge...

A useful chap the scallop, n'est-ce pas?

In Brittany folk eat a great many scallops, and the evidence of our own dining is to be found all around my house, since I can rarely bring myself to throw away such pretty shells.

I love wandering past a fish stall or into a fish shop to gaze in slightly-squeamish awe at the still-crawling crutaceans, the bound and gagged lobsters, the piles of scallops...

Seafood should be fresh, n'est-ce pas?

Here's how to clean a scallop:
An Illustrated Guide To Cleaning A Scallop
And here are some links to scallop recipes:
Fisherman's Express ('all wild and all natural') Cooking
Recipe Zaar

Enough already?
Ok, just one more, my favourite recipe, Scallop Bisque

Care to make an angel from scallop shells? Then look no further than this link

I'd post a picture of the blanket that I crocheted when I was 17 years old, if I hadn't lost it along the way. The stitches resembled scallop shells. Maybe I'll crochet another one one day soon...

What else can I tell you about scallops?

The scallop shell is often associated with the act of pilgrimage. It is said that this comes from the Way of St. James, also known as el Camino de Santiago, the pilgrimage to the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in northern Spain. Legend says that it is here that the remains of the apostle Saint James are buried.

The shell features a single point from which ribs radiate outwards, a symbol of pilgrimage. By tradition dating back to the 8th century pilgrims would bring back a scallop shell to prove that they'd completed the journey. This then developed into the symbol of pilgrimage

Something for the linguists...

In some languages the scallop shell is called the muscle of St. James.

The German word for scallop is "Jakobsmuschel".
The Swedish word for scallop literally translates to pilgrim mussel.
A French name for a dish containing scallops is coquille St. Jacques (in Québec, pétoncle is more commonly used).
The Dutch name is Jakobsschelp (James being English for Jacobus).
In Danish, ibskal refers to scallops worn by pilgrims from Santiago de Compostella (Ib being the Danish name for St. James)

My stone scallop shell was bought on my semi-pilgrimage last year to Mont St Michel and hangs on a wall as a souvenir of a special day

Once, on a trip to the coast to find a sawmill my then-partner and I stopped by a lake to take a walk with the Tibetans.

The lake is around 5kms from the sea.

As we walked amongst chestnut and pine trees something in the fallen leaves caught my eye.
It was a beautiful scallop shell.
Ever the forager I bent down to pick it up and in so doing I unearthed a veritable treasure-trove of scallop shells.

By the time that we'd finished digging we had filled a large carrier bag

We brought them home to sit in their bag and wait for me to clean them, drill a hole in each and string them up somewhere, they're still waiting....
I have no idea who left them or why they were there.
One of life's mysteries.

The scallop shell is also associated with the cult of Venus, as seen here in Botticelli's beautiful The Birth of Venus.

Surprisingly (and luckily for us) the painting escaped the flames of Savonarola's bonfires that reduced all such 'pagan works' (including many books) to ashes.

It obviously pays to have friends in high places and the Medici Family were very high indeed. Such a shame that the same Florentine family abandoned poor old Galileo to the wrath of the Catholic Church for daring to suggest that the earth revolves around the sun!
Blasphemy indeed!

Changing the subject, I read somewhere that the native Americans also made much use of scallop shells as ornaments and in their dancing. Obviously there are many other fans of this wonderful little creature

So, mes amis, I hope that you enjoyed my little scallop taster.
The Ragazza and I will be back in Brittany for our first visit of the year next month, a little later than I'd hoped but it will be May, it will be sunny, there will be fresh fish on which to feast, perhaps there will be scallops...

Meanwhile, here in Oxfordshire on a beautifully sunny Sunday morning, chapter six of my fledgling first novel, Flies in the Ointment, is waiting for me. And yes, the cover will, of course, include a scallop shell, amongst other things, it was writing a chapter in which my main character receives gifts of scallop shells from an anonymous admirer, that led me to write this post.

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Chicken and Egg

Today I purchased six eggs from a colleague at work who keeps hens...

As I walked back down to the malware analysis labs where I spend my working day, I couldn't help thinking of my home-village in Brittany and the friends there who also keep chickens. Which drew me to a post that I wrote five years ago, at which time the seeds for my departure from Brittany had just been sown, while I was feeling homesick and following a bout of the flu, and were starting to sprout as my relationship with my then-partner was hitting a difficult patch.

I should mention that P. of the K&P couple has since passed away. He was a lovely man, cheerful, cheeky and a good friend, his passing was deeply felt by all of my French Tribe, and by me.

So this post is dedicated, with love, to Paul.


Meanwhile, here in France
We are the temporary carers of our friends K&P's flock of ducks, chickens and geese.

chicken -> noun 1 a domestic fowl kept for its eggs or meat, especially a young one
# [mass noun] meat from a chicken: roast chicken
2 [mass noun] informal a game in which the first person to lose their nerve and withdraw from a dangerous situation is the loser
# [count noun] a coward
-> adjective [predic] informal cowardly; I was too chicken to go to court
-> verb [no obj] (chicken out) informal withdraw from or fail in something through lack of nerve: the referee chickened out of giving a penalty
- PHRASES chicken-and-egg denoting a situation in which each of two things appears to be necessary to the other. don't count your chickens before they're hatched see COUNT. like a headless chicken informal in a panic-stricken and unthinking manner
- ORIGIN Old English cicen, cyen, of Germanic origin: related to Dutch Kuchlein, and probably also to COCK

Most people in the commune keep chickens for their eggs and for the occasional casserole/roast dinner/pie (delete as appropriate)

My neighbour R. regularly leaves a box of neatly-numbered eggs on my kitchen table

The fowl-fanatics K&P treat The Someone to a goose egg and artery-cloggingly rich duck eggs from time to time...

Our friend HH has a lovely hay-filled barn full of cheerful chickens and dapper ducks...

The Dashing One keeps his paltry poultry in the same dark, damp shed where the Pathetic Pig passed a miserable 10 months before being dragged out and slaughtered in the road behind my house one day last month.

The English residents of the commune treat their animals with a great deal more care and consideration than do the Breton locals. Not that I am judging anyone. As the saying goes one must walk a mile in someone's shoes before passing judgement on his actions. And wooden Breton clogs are far from comfortable foot-attire!

So, poultry are purchased from the weekly markets

Downy ducklings that huddle in a heap of frightened feathers

The Ladies.....

and The gentlemen.....

Yes, of course I have been tempted.
Especially by the cheeping chicks and dabbling ducklings

But to purchase poultry and house hens would mean making a committment, albeit only a token symbolic gesture, to remaining in France that I am not, at this time, prepared to make.

So, for now I am playing at poultry farming...

Which means an early walk down to the house near the station to let out:

9 brown hens
2 white hens
1 enthusiastic cockerell
6 ducks
1 large white and black duck called Arnold
2 geese

I would have said "so far, so good" except that this morning I lifted the lid on one of the nesting boxes and found a dead hen inside. It was an unpleasant early-morning encounter and one that made tears well up in my eyes. I always did cry easily. Always was too soft-hearted.

Life is so transitory. We're here one minute and gone the next.

As I stood gazing down at the dead hen, stiff with rigor mortis, feathers all in disarray, beak open in a last mute cry to the cold morning wind, I thought back to all of the people I have loved and lost. When I was a child I naively expected that all of the people I loved would remain in my life forever. That I would grow old and they would just grow very, very old alongside me. Twenty years ago that faith was shattered with the death of my father.

We all think that we are special, that we are immune to death's icy touch. Yet in the blink of an eye we all simply cease to be and the planet continues to circle the sun, day follows night, spring follows winter, life goes on...

This morning we fed bread, corn and vegetable scraps to the chickens. Yesterday's failure of a pie crust was very much appreciated by a little light brown hen who appears to have adopted me and tries to follow me home. I didn't tell her I was probably making quiche with her eggs at the time....

We gathered up the dead hen and we placed her carefully in a bag and we left the living chickens, ducks and geese happily clucking in the little orchard

chicken and egg...

Sunday, 14 April 2013

French Markets, in Abingdon and in Callac

Yesterday I met up with a co-worker for a cup of coffee and a slice of cake in a delightful little cafe in Abingdon. I'd driven past lots of times on my way to work and read the board in the window offering pudding nights and knitting/chat sessions, but yesterday was the first time I'd walked through the door, which is a shame.

'Rosie's Tea Room'   is a lovely little place, independent of those large and somewhat faceless corporations who've sprung up on our high streets, quirky and unique. We sat on a squashy little sofa by a bookcase and smiled in approval of the old building, with its beams and flooring, at the pictures on the walls and the little, amusing touches, such as this crocheted teapot and cups...

Over our drinks and cakes we chatted, about some issues we have in common, plans for projects that we're both working on, families, the usual therapeutic and helpful stuff that we women are so good at.

And then we wandered, in the rain, round the French Market.


It wasn't a proper French market, not the kind that you'd find in a French town where there are all manner of people selling all kinds of goods, the kinds of good that are essential purchases for daily life...

 It was more 'A taste of France', but even so it was lovely to wander round and indulge in some nostalgic reminiscences


 And I was tempted by the stall selling sweet goodies and bought a bag of cream-filled pastries from the smiling man who was also making crèpes, although I'd have preferred a paper bag to the plastic one I was offered....

 I was not tempted by the sausage stall. It reminded me of the one in Caen that sells donkey-meat sausages, which discover put me off for life...



I would have liked to have bought some paté but it was too expensive for my budget, and so common sense prevailed....





 The lady selling cheeses was charming. We chatted in French, she told us that she lives in Quimper, I told her that my home is near Guingamp, she complained about the music that is constantly played at the next stall, how it's repetitive and boring. I laughed and danced a little waltz as we walked away.

And then my friend and I parted company and I came home to re-read a post that I wrote a couple of weeks before I returned to England to start work, about a real French market, the one at which I used to do some of my weekly shopping. 

If the spacing is inconsistent and annoying, my apologies. I'm rushing to write this before getting ready to drive to Oxford where this afternoon I will be helping to teach an English class, more on that exciting new project later. 

Callac Market

One pleasure of life in rural France that almost makes up for the lack of fish and chips, curries and decent ready-meals (and never underestimate the importance of the small but reassuringly familiar things in life), is the weekly market.

Fridays are special, that's when the larger Guingamp market is held and it's always followed, for me, by coffee and a raspberry macaroon at my favourite cafe in the main square

On Wednesdays though, I do my main shopping at Callac market

The formula rarely changes, twelve large organic eggs from the 'chicken lady' who throws in a French lesson for free, a basket full of whichever organic vegetables the gentle lady in the headscarf is selling from her modest table, a loaf of bread and a moist, sugary brioche from the sexy organic baker (are you spotting a trend here?) and then either live langoustines and fresh fish or slabs of marbled meat, depending on my preference on the day. Some days I cope well with the killing process, most days I still find it hard to watch live creatures die in boiling water, even as I know that I should be prepared to do so....

It's a very social event, the weekly market, with much meeting, greeting and kissing as old friends catch up with each other

After two years some of the older Breton ladies now recognize me which gives me such pleasure, and I really appreciate the sense of belonging and the feeling that I have become a part of the community

So, wander with me around a typical market in a small Breton farming town...

Like this small girl I wanted to buy baby rabbits to keep as pets. Sadly these bunnies are destined to be reared in small hutches, fed on stale bread and garden greens and then dispatched for the pot.

Likewise these ducklings.
The first time I saw them I was overcome by a strong maternal instinct to buy the whole lot and let them fly free.

This is the statue of a Breton horse that stands in the car park near the post office where I arrive, breathless and panicking to post a late essay to my O.U tutor more often than I care to admit...

I will miss the horse fair in Bulat Pestivien this year which is probably just as well, the temptation to buy a pony is becoming increasingly difficult to resist...

A pile of wooden clogs


The word sabotage derives from the name of this footwear, clogs having been used to sabotage factory machinery at one rebellious time....

Practical people the Bretons, though I prefer flipflops or furry Finnish boots to this kind of footwear

I often stop and smile at this stall. Who amongst the solid, sensible Breton ladies would waste her hard-earned money on a belly-dancing outfit?

In these parts people please themselves and individuality is expected rather than frowned-upon

Onions and garlic, bien sûr

It wouldn't be France without such staples, would it?


I see this old man every week. He always wears leather trousers, the same jerkin and hat and he always has the gentlest, most well-behaved Alsation dog on a leash and a pipe in his mouth.

He is typical of the free-thinking, individual folk that live here and everyone recognizes him and greets him

Next week The Ragazza and I will enjoy one last trip to Callac market. My life at this time has become a series of One Last's as the date for my departure draws near and I become increasingly aware of all that I will have to sacrifice when I return to England  


Saturday, 6 April 2013

Chauvet Cave’s Ice Age art - Jean Clottes at the British Museum

I've always been an enthusiast.
Definition: "a person who is filled with enthusiasm for some principle, pursuit, etc." From the Greek meaning 'one inspired.'

I'm quite well known for it, even at work. Former colleagues frequently laughed at my enthusiasm for the software products for which I provided technical support. At that time I was so enthusiastic about one product in particular, Strobe, that I usually managed to 'sell it' to a prospective new customer's technical team before our sales force had even made the first pitch.

I'm also rather enthusiastic about ice age art and the Swimming Reindeer, France and linguistics, which may now be obvious.

So, being an enthusiast myself, I love to encounter fellow enthusiasts, people who are passionate about something, often their work, but sometimes something else entirely.And when that enthusiast is also an expert, well, that's a real bonus.

Yesterday I took a day's holiday from work in order to return to the British Museum for an evening lecture  by Jean Clottes who is, without doubt, a real enthusiast, an expert in his field, and an inspiration. The lecture was called - A unique discovery: Chauvet Cave’s Ice Age art.

I travelled by train, with my copy of one of his many books, my notepad and my pen. And as I often find myself engaged in long conversations with my fellow passengers in crowded compartments, and since this time I really wanted to be able to sit and read and make notes, I bought a First Class ticket which extravagance granted me a whole four leather seats and table all to myself, and a compartment free of noise and distraction.

The day was not without irritations and frustrations, quite a few in fact which could have cast a cloud on my visit, but there were compensations. Meeting my son, The Ragazzo, albeit after a long game of cat and mouse during which we both managed to avoid finding each other; a frustrating game that ended when I finally decided that he'd failed to arrive and was about to disappear into an exhibition, whereupon I spotted him in the crowd. (No, I didn't have my mobile phone (see I dislike modern technology) which led to a telling-off from The Ragazza when I arrived home late and having broken my curfew.)

So I was able to take my son to the Ice-Age Art exhibition, which was actually very crowded and therefore not nearly as much fun as my first visit. It was so crowded that we couldn't get close enough to read the descriptions of the objects, which meant that I had to describe and explain (in hushed tones, of course) a little about them. That attracted the attention of a very little old lady who seemed to have got it into her head that I was An Authority, and who proceeded to ask me a great many questions, before demanding that I sort out her audio-visual tour equipment. I fully expected her to tip me at the end of her visit, and perhaps she would have, had I not been standing mesmerised before a certain carving of two swimming reindeer.

When the Ragazzo had to leave to prepare for a gig at which he was due to drum (he's a music student in London), I had an hour to fill before the lecture started. I could have cut to the front of the long queue for the new Pompeii and Herculaneum exhibition and, waving my Member's Card, I could have  walked in for free and in front of everyone who'd been waiting for over an hour, but taking advantage of that privilege seemed rather rude and inconsiderate to me, so I opted for a twenty minute lecture on the Rosetta Stone, given by an unpaid volunteer and enthusiast.

And then to the lecture hall, by way of a photo shoot in the mirror of the ladies toilets. I took the picture because I am camera-shy, and since I have been asked if I'm happy to have my picture taken with the hand axe that I've been gifted by the chap who led the flint napping course at the museum a few weeks ago, I decided that it's time to stop being self-conscious.

So, Chauvet's cave and Jean Clottes...

La grotte Chauvet, grotte Chauvet-Pont-d'Arc ou encore grotte de la Combe d'Arc est une grotte ornée paléolithique située en Ardèche (France). Le site comporte 420 représentations d'animaux (peintures, gravures). 

De nombreuses datations directes par la méthode du carbone 14 ont donné des résultats cohérents proches de 31 000 ans BP. 

La communauté scientifique admet quasi unanimement que les œuvres de la grotte Chauvet datent de l'Aurignacien et comptent parmi les plus anciennes au monde. 

La diversité et la maîtrise des techniques dont elles témoignent ont profondément remis en cause l'idée d'un art préhistorique évoluant très lentement et de manière linéaire et ascendante.


Jean Clottes, préhistorien, est principalement connu du grand public pour les études qu'il a réalisées sur les grottes de Chauvet, de Cosquer et de Niaux.

Il a également participé, sur le terrain, aux travaux sur les grottes d'Enlène, la grotte du Placard ou le Tuc d'Audoubert.
Il est l'un des grands spécialistes de l'art préhistorique.


Translations are available, for the non-Francophones, but the important point to mention is that the Chauvet cave is special because it proves that the ability for create prehistoric art did not evolve gradually over many thousands of years, the paintings on the walls of the cave are so old and so sophisticated they prove that over 35,000 years ago our ancestors were already skilled artists.

In December 1994 Jean Clottes received a phone call. A new cave had been discovered in the Ardeches region of France.  He was told to come quickly. It was the holiday period, his family had gathered to celebrate, it was not a good time to leave them behind and to drive 400 kms to explore a cave. He went, of course he went. And the rest is, as they say, history...

Can you imagine how it must have felt to descend into the caves, to wriggle on your belly through a tiny passage, so tiny that the men were obliged to remove as much of their clothing as possible in order to squeeze through the rocks, to emerge on a ledge in a cavern where the stalactites and stalagmites had grown, untouched and undisturbed for thousands of years, and to be one of the first people to see the palaeolithic paintings in the cave at Chauvet?

There are horses...

Thought to have been painted by one person, these horses form the centrepiece of the Chauvet cave.

There are rhinos...

This pair of males are fighting.  Such naturalistic scenes are rare in palaeolithic cave art, which makes this painting unique, and special.


There are lions...

Although it is usually only the females who hunt, this scene also includes males, since the pride is hunting a bison.

There are cave bears...

The cave bears were large, ferocious and to be avoided, and they dwelt in the caves.

Cave bear skulls have been found collected in heaps and with femur bones carefully placed nearby.

There is an owl...

I don't think I've ever seen an owl in a piece of cave art. This one has his head turned completely round, the ancestors were obviously also impressed by this trick.

There are others, many, many others. I could sit and post pictures all  day, or you could buy the book by Jean Clottes and read all about them for yourself. Suffice to say that the hour-long lecture was brilliant and the applause at the end was long and enthusiastic. We had all been captivated and enthralled and would probably have sat and listened to Jean Clottes all night. 

At the end of the talk and slide show, Jill Cook invited questions.
I sat with my hand raised, but hesitantly and shyly, I lacked the confidence to catch her eye and so didn't get to ask my question of M. Clottes. I admit to feeling disappointed, and to mentally berating myself for my cowardice. An opportunity to ask a question from one of one's heroes doesn't often arrive and I had failed to grasp it.

So, I did something that was totally out of character, for me.
When the last question had been asked, and as people were leaving, I marched down to the front of the lecture hall, I politely took Jill Cook aside, and I asked her if I might request that he sign my copy of his book?

As he did I told him I'd heard his talk about the Chauvet cave on radio France Culture, that it had been fascinating.

Jean Clottes looked surprised. I don't think he expected me to chat to him in French. I hadn't either but it just happened.

And so I left the museum late, by which time the sun had set and the lights of London were shining brightly. The journey by tube back to Paddington station was, thankfully, speedy and event-free. I emerged from the underground to find a fast train to Swansea conveniently waiting at Platform 3.

I took my First Class seat, drew the curtain, opened my book and sat back to look at the pictures and to smile contentedly as the train sped through the darkness. An hour later I was home, exhausted, totally and utterly exhausted but inspired, very, very inspired by an evening listening to Jean Clottes talking about the Chauvet cave.

Jean Clotte - article in Time Europe 
Bradshaw Foundation - The Cave Art Paintings of the Chauvet Cave