That’s where we walked this morning, a day before we fly home, to St. George’s Gardens, one of my favourite places in London. The land for it was bought in 1713 as a burial ground; it went through various stages of use and dereliction before being re-opened in the 1940s as a “public sitting room for the poor”, in the words of housing reformer Octavia Hill (from an information sign by the garden’s gate). It’s a lovely garden with private benches, magpies (we observed the courtesies seeing the first one, and then I was relieved to see its mate: one for sorrow, two for joy…), massive plantings of hellebores, daffodils, a statue of Euterpe (the muse of lyric poetry),
and small children out with their parents. I thought how this trip has been all about time, its dimensions, its shadows and faint outlines:
Here is the grave of Anna Gibson, granddaughter of Oliver Cromwell, related (in some way; kinship maps always baffle me) to Thomas Cromwell, subject of the wonderful Wolf Hall:
And late yesterday afternoon, after arriving from France, we sang “Loch Lomond” to our granddaughter Kelly, across the oceans, the time-zones, through the wonders of Skype.
…my necklace fell from its place around my throat to the ground. (The street signs are in French and Occitan so figuring out my route is impossible now.) By now someone has found it and may or may not think it lovely but certainly he or she will not know its story. I bought it last April, in New Mexico, in a little gallery in Madrid, a town on the Turquoise Trail, between Albuquerque and Santa Fe. It was Cerrillos turquoise, three strings of heishi beads, made by Fanny Garcia of Santo Domingo Pueblo. It wasn’t the piece I’d meant to buy. Somehow I’d imagined a dramatic silver and turquoise collar. But this necklace spoke to me from the case. Its colour was beautiful — deep turquoise (of course) with streaks of green. When I tried it on, I loved how it settled into the hollow of my throat. I loved that it was always cool, like water. The woman in the gallery explained the process for making heishi and I realized my necklace was the result of a long association between its maker and her materials. I meant to have the clasp replaced with a sturdier one, a safety clasp, but never quite got around to it.
I wasn’ t feeling well this morning and so I put on my necklace to make myself feel brighter. It had that effect on me. Touching it reminded me of our time in New Mexico, driving back-roads to pueblos, hiking in Bandolier, buying fierce Chimayo chili from a man selling bags from his truck, the sweetness of pinon smoke in our little room in Taos.Maybe it slipped to the ground on this street:
Or perhaps it found its way to the floor of St. Sernin Basilica, a beautiful church built mostly during the 11th and 12th centuries of soft rose stone and brick. The Basilica was a stop on the route of pilgrims walking the trail to Santiago de Compostela and somehow I hope that’s where I lost it and that the person who finds it realizes that it comes from a deeply storied landscape, that holding the three strands of Cerrillos turquoise in the hands has its own quiet power.
P.s. I realize there are many mistakes on the posts I’very made on this particular European ramble. I’very tried to correct them but the tiny screen means that some hide beyond my vision. And to be honest, some aren’t even my fault! On this post alone, the tablet “corrected” me three times that I know of. It was sure I meant “olive” when I’ d typed ” around”; it had us “dying” in New Mexico instead of “driving”; and it turns out it’s never heard of Occitan…
OF course I know how lucky I am, for the most part. My life is good, mostly I am able to do the work that compels me, Tha intriguing me and challenge me, even if I increasingly have a difficult time finding publishers willing to take the finished manuscripts and turn them into books, (Which makes me so grateful for them when they do. Mona Fertig, I’m talking about you!)
And I am lucky to have both the opportunity to travel as well as a congenial partner to go places with, even if I do have to lug my own case up the train steps.
Today, for instance. We left Carcassonne by train and arrived in Toulouse in brilliant sunshine. We had lunch on this little square —
— pave of tuna with an aoili, followed by pears poached in vie de marcillac. When we checked into our hotel, the man suggested we might like to be upgraded for a very modest amount. (We’d done our usual thing, choosing a modest room using one of the last-minute online sites. And modest usually does mean modest: tiny shower, a few hangers for clothes, maybe a chair.) So here we are in a grand room, I’ve just had a long soak in the h-u-g-e tub (with the Ombra travel bubbles I always have in my case, and after a nap in a very comfy bed to head off the beginnings of a cold, we’re going to hear the Orchestra de Chambre de Toulouse in a concet of Schumann at thIs church:
I first read about cassoulet when I was 21, living for a winter in a beautiful house with Elizabeth David’s books on the kitchen shelves. Her descriptions of the dish in (I think it was) French Country Cooking were part of the reason I became so interested in food. A story of variation, of long slow simmering, of ingredients so passionately sourced and prepared. We had a lovely version the other evening and when I praised it, the chef (and owner) of Au Lard et au Cochon went into his pantry and brought out a big cloth sack from Castelnaudary to show me the dried beans he uses. They’re slightly longer than the ones I use in Canada, slightly more elegant. His cassoulet was fabulous.
Today we returned to the medieval city to explore some more and we had lunch at the same place as yesterday, the Maison du Cassoulet. We had other food yesterday but today we both had cassoulet. It was very good, slightly thicker, with a crust — no crust at Au Lard et au Cochon. And the Toulouse sausage today wasn’t quite as flavourful. Our host the other evening said his friend makes the sausage he uses. And there were also little morsels of pork belly (I think) which gave the dish such depth. Today we shared a half-litre of local rose which was the kind of wine you could get used to drinking as often as possible.
I made cassoulet this winter with what I had on hand (or in the freezer): confit of duck leg and homemade sausages from friend Jeffrey; double-smoked bacon; dried beans and garlic from the summer’s garden. It was good but now I have a few other ideas, or at least I will once I decode this flow chart…
Hopefully Jeffrey will share his bounty again. And tomorrow we’re going to Toulouse where I understand there’s a cassoulet brotherhood whose members wear hats shaped like the cassole, or earthenware vessel cassoulet is traditionally served in. Of course we’ll try at least one version there too. And maybe buy a cassole to bring home. All those years ago, reading Elizabeth David in North Saanich, I had no idea I’d be lucky enough to try cassoulet on its own terroir.
Last night we had dinner in a terrific bistro — crisp salad, a delicious cassoulet rich with duck confit, Toulouse sausage, nuggets of lamb — and while we were eating, smooth golden oldies were playing on the sound system. I joked that I almost expected to hear Paul Anka singing “Having My Baby” and John insisted that Paul Anka never sang that. So we bet on it. I said if I was right, he had to buy me a bijou in the old city next day. I won’t say what he said his prize would be (but you can imagine…).
Not only was I right — ah, the wonders of YouTube — but I also realized that Paul was already a presence in our hotel room, on the door of the bathroom:
And here’s my prize:
it was quiet within the ramparts of Carcassonne today, quiet enough for the imagination to enter the old gate nd walk the narrow cobbled streets, under towers dense with pigeons, and look out to the beautiful countryside through the slots where archers would have shot the enemy.
Looking up, I wondered if the gargoyles ever tired of the view. Or the pigeons.
In Belem — part of the municipality of Lisbon — we spent several hours at the Museu Nacional de Arqueologia, looking (mostly) at “Time Salvaged From The Sea”, an exhibition of underwater archaeology. I bought the guide-book and have been reading it most nights before sleep. The exhibit itself was fascinating: objects recovered from marine, river, and other wet environments all over Portugal, ranging in date from pre-Roman times to the early 20th century. What was particularly interesting to me was the quality of the written material accompanying the visual displays. The whole exhibit was designed to welcome the visitor, to ignite excitement, to communicate. I kept scribbling in my notebook and then realized I could simply buy the guide. For example, this passage decoded the remains and context of the San Pedro de Alcantara which sank in 1786 near Peniche, due to a navigational error on a winter night. It was heading to Cadiz from Peru.
Together and Alone: Crossing the Blue
As a society closed in on itself during the crossing, a ship represents an architectural structure that is destined to travel, equipped for the survival of her inhabitants who are isolated at sea for weeks or months on end.
The internal distribution of this human microcosm, confined by wooden planks, iron, the clouds and saktwater, reflects, in its own particular way, the organization and hierarchy of a society on land that drove this community to its fate.
During the crossing, for hundreds of men, and in this case, some women and children, stern and bow, decks, poop deck, topsail or hold became opposite poles of a small world saturated with divisions between social classes and geographical loneliness.
I thought of this exhibit several times over the last few days here in Bordeaux. Wonderful museums, yes, but little attempt to include non-French speaking visitors. All the cases of paleolithic tools, the films accompanying them — and no translations. I know, I know — I should work on my French, especially as I have a lovely Francophone daughter-in-law. But I don’t speak Portuguese either and in Belem it hardly mattered. The exhibits were available visually and textually.
That phrase “geographical loneliness” is good, isn’t it?
— but one of the nicest things about being in France is the opportunity to eat delicious pastries. This morning we took the tram out to the end the line to see what Bordeaux suburbs look like. There’s even a tram stop called Stalingrad, though I have to say it was not what I imagine present-day Volgograd to be.
After buying sandwiches at Paul to bring back to our little flat for lunch, we stopped at Le Pain Quotidien for espresso and pain au chocolat. It’s around the block but has always been too busy in the past for us to sit at a table and savour each flake of the pastries. Today it was quiet. And as well as my pain au chocolat, I loved the tiled floor and the cupboard holding the confitures.
In the Museum of Aquitaine today, some familiars. These women (and i suspect most mothers will recognize something of themselves here):
These figures, from the Dordogne, are around 25,000 years old and contrast so wonderfully with the mannequins in the shop windows here in Bordeaux where clothing from every major designer is available.
An angel, who convinced me of her divinity (though I doubted so many painted facsimiles in the Museum of Fine Arts yesterday, with their pink skin and golden curls).
I also recognized this parade of ungulates, reproduced from a panel at Lascaux — they look so uncannily like the Roosevelt elk we see so often at home on the Sechelt peninsula.
We spent a few hours at the Musee des Beaux Arts here in Bordeaux, looking at a lot of swooning maidens, dying lions, a bad Mary Cassatt (and I love her work), a muddy Bonnard (ditto), a beautiful Riopelle (his snowy owl), and an unexpected delight: Brueghel’s La Danse des Noces. It reminded me of William Carlos Williams’ late poem ‘The Dance’, in which he captures the colour and movement of a Brueghel painting.
“In Brueghel’s great picture, The Kermess,
the dancers go round, they go round and
around, the squeal and the blare and the
tweedle of bagpipes, a bugle and fiddles
tipping their bellies (round as the thick-
sided glasses whose wash they impound)…”