Monday, 25 July 2016

Snails galore at Cluis

I thought that was weird right away. The central green of this little Berrichon town is decorated with three big stone snails.

But then I thought if La Chatre had bronze sheep, and Rouen had concrete cows, then Cluis having snails wasn't quite so strange.

I went into the little microbrewery on the square and was invited to have a glass of snail slime. That was very weird.

("La Bave du Luma" turns out to be a quite acceptable strong bitter, brewed by an expatriate Brit who knows his stuff.)

And then found out that every year has a Fete du Luma, or Snail Feast, with a huge motorised snail leading the procession. (Luma is local dialect for the edible snail, 'escargot' everywhere else in France.)

Someone's back garden has a little traffic sign, a triangular red bordered sign with a little black snail - 'warning! snails!'

Someone else has curtains with little snails drawn on them.

Everywhere you look - snails!

Apart from the snails, Cluis turned out to be a fascinating little town. The splendid old manor house has been turned into the Mairie, there's an ancient church with some nice glass, a splendid medieval timber covered market, and a huge old fortress in the valley below whose pinkish walls are impressive even in their state of ruin. The town was a stop on the pilgrim route to Santiago de Compostela, so you see a couple of scallop shells contesting the snails' hegemony.

But it's the snails I'll remember!

Thursday, 21 July 2016

FOMO vs really missing out

After YOLO comes FOMO. Nasty little abbreviations, but FOMO is definitely nastier than YOLO. Fear Of Missing Out is insidious. It's a distant cousin to the deadly sin of Envy; it's anti-Zen, anti-spontaneity, anti-life.

I see FOMO travellers all the time. They want to pack the whole of India into three weeks. They end up seeing nothing but tout-infested tourist traps. They see the Taj Mahal at dawn and they're out of there by lunchtime; they never get as far as the Himalayas, and they miss out on the delights of small town India.

FOMO travellers get bored when they're somewhere like Luang Prabang. They say 'There's nothing more here for me to see', or 'It's not Bangkok', or 'too many temples'. They don't talk to the monks, they don't go along to chat to the Laos learning English at Big Brother Mouse, they don't get to know one special Sandwich Lady on the market.

I admit to having some of the characteristics of FOMO travellers. I always want to do too much. I always want to see everything. But I've learned to take my time. (And okay, I have time, since I made travelling a priority and rented my house out to do it.)

Because if you're always afraid of missing out, you will miss out.
  • Your schedule will be too full for you to decide to stay for a week in that place that really speaks to you. It will be too full for you to tiptoe into a music class and decide that playing dulcimer is something that's worth missing the hill tribe visit out of your Thai  itinerary. It will be to full to have lunch with a nice Burmese history teacher in a little cafe near Shwedagon Pagoda, instead of eating in the tourist place with everyone else.
  • You'll miss the thing you didn't know was happening. At Palitana, I so nearly missed the great mela - its date changes from year to year; I decided at the last minute to stay for another two days and walk the great pilgrimage with thousands of Jain devotees. I ended up being water-pistolled cool, given rose-scented towels, and entertained to some of the best Indian cooking I've ever had.
  • You'll miss the delight of becoming a temporary local. At Orchha I was invited to play karrom with Ram Babu and his sons, to become the official photographer for a local wedding, and to join a family picnic for a little boy's birthday. I even got a personal brazier and massage from grandma when I came back wet and cold from an expedition to Gwalior that turned into an out-of-season monsoon.
  • You'll miss being able to sit down and just soak in the spirit of the place. There's a stand of ancient trees somewhere in Ladakh where I sat for two hours, just because it made me happy.
Okay, you may not have six months to travel around India, as I did last time. But leave yourself some space for the special things to happen. Get to know one small area well, or get open tickets so you can change your plans on the fly, and above all, know that the guide books and the '100 things to see before you die' (or 300 things, or 1000 things) are not meant specifically for you - and that what you love may be very different from what's in the guidebook.

In which spirit, things I'm glad I've seen and experienced, but that were never in the books:
  • the cats of the book bazaar in Istanbul, and their special cat drinking fountain,
  • the Japanese chanting monk at Rajgir who invited me to chant Nam-myoho-ren-ge-kyo along with him,
  • the box of kittens in a cafe in Meknes, and the brothers we met who look after 22 cats between them and scrounge offal from the butchers to feed them,
  • Buddha's birthday celebrations at Temisgam, Ladakh, with traditional dancing, spicy lunch, and the chance to scramble around some very steep scree,
  • dancing and singing with a brass band at Shivatri Mela in Pachmarhi,
  • visiting a goat farm on the Sentier Cathare and seeing kittens and kids playing together in the hay,
  • lying on a comfortable big boulder on the Way of St James in the Massif Central, watching the infinitely deep blue of the sky and feeling happily lazy,
  • seeing a flock of goldfinches on teasel, somewhere near Nasbinals,
  • finding the Mestre rowing club outing on Torcello and getting a ride in a gondolino over to Burano,
  • talking to 'Mr Heatwave' in Asbyrgi and finding out why Icelanders don't wear shorts in April,
  • getting invited up to the organ loft in Saint-Bertrand-de-Comminges and staying there till midnight,
  • spending all morning with a friend of my landlady's quartering Sofia in search of a gaida (Bulgarian bagpipe) - and just as we'd given up hope, finding one to buy,
  • talking someone at the Buddhist Photo Archive in Luang Prabang and finding out there's a picture of him as a young monk in the exhibition,
  • marching on a French Musicians' Union demo (and finding my partner in the process).


Tuesday, 19 July 2016

Two churches in Berry - Gargilesse, Le Menoux

I'm just back from a music festival, Le Son Continu at Chateau d'Ars, near La Chatre, in Berry - the heart of George Sand country.

Just getting up on Monday and driving home seemed an anticlimax. We needed some gentle meandering around Berry first, and fortunately the good people of the Berry tourist office (that's two departments, Cher and Indre, working together) were at the festival with lots of information and a splendid fuchsia pink 2CV. That gave us a couple of ideas for a day out; two interesting churches, and a bit of scenery en route.

So off we went, through Neuvy Saint Sepulchre with its wonderful round church (UNIQUE EN FRANCE as the sign on the main road proudly claims, in big capitals) round which the houses and towers huddle for protection from the truck-plagued main road, and by small lanes through the countryside. This is bocage, where every lane runs between hedges, and mature trees shelter lazy cattle from the sun, and even though the wheat is now golden and ready to harvest, the landscape still swims with green.

Gargilesse is a pretty village; church and chateau top the slope above the Gargilesse river, and small houses cluster around them, tucked into tiny declivities or straggling along the road. In the dusty square in front of the chateau gates, someone has made a delightful fern garden under a spreading tree. The tourist office has been installed in an ancient dovecote, the nesting slots patterning the inside walls starkly with light and shadow.

It's hot outside. As soon as I step into the church I feel the chill, and I see the green and black streaks of humidity on the walls. A huge painted Christ looks down at me from the apse vault. I look at the finely carved capitals of the crossing and I see Saint Peter - at first, anyway, I think it's St Peter holding up his key - then I realise he has a little fiddle in one hand., and when I look at the next figure, he's the same... and the next one... Then I realise, there are three of these fiddle players on each of the capitals, and there are four capitals on the inside and four on the outside, which makes twelve plus twelve... these are the Twenty-Four Elders of the Apocalypse, shown on the great doorway at Santiago de Compostela, but here, they guard the centre of the building.

Then I find dark steps leading downwards. The walls each side are slick and wet, and the wooden handrail feels vaguely sweaty. It's a mini-pilgrimage through the dark dankness, and then out into the blazing light and colour of the crypt. Almost every surface is painted; three great windows on the river side of the church, where the ground falls away, light the narthex.

A huge Christ of the Apocalypse biting a sword between his teeth scowls down on the sanctuary; the three Kings have crowns and neatly curled beards like Henry III of England on his tomb in Westminster Abbey (and he died in  1272, so perhaps that gives a date for the painting?). The dead wriggle and clamber out of their tombs as angels blow horns to announce the Last Judgment. This is terrifying stuff, nothing pretty about it; the later paintings, perhaps fifteenth century, show the instruments of the passion - the spear, the nails, the cross. Somehow the painters at Gargilesse always seem to have been concerned with the tough side of life, the torturer's art, the destructive and awesome.
When I came out of the church at Gargilesse I was struck blind by the glare of the afternoon sun. I felt I'd emerged from a strange undersea world of gloom and damp, from the subterranean folds of a grotesque brain.

 The church at Le Menoux couldn't be more different. From the outside it looks like one of those identikit small nineteenth century churches you find all over France; neo-Romanesque detailing, a slim central spire, all done in crisp and clinical white stone, with as little life in it as a technical drawing of a building.

Then you go inside, and psychedelia breaks loose. Not what you were expecting, at all. (Unless, of course, you had that useful little booklet from the Berry tourism people.)
 When Bolivian artist Jorge Carrasco arrived here in the 1960s it was a dull whitewashed space. By the time he'd finished with it, it was a glorious chaos of colour. Only the slender ribs of the vault and the arches of the windows and side chapels are left white, both emphasising the lines of the architecture and bringing a little spaciousness and light to the design.

Amazingly, despite the psychedelia and bad trip imagery that would have suited Hunter S Thompson, the church breathes a spirit of contented peace. Light pinks, pale spun gold yellow, the intense blue of a twilight sky, come to life as the sun comes out from behind a cloud. In Le Menoux, nothing stirs, except two gardeners working on a strip of lawn, and there's not even a breath of wind; in the church, colours swirl, the universe is made and remade over and over.

It's difficult to imagine two churches so different. But Le Menoux is just what a medieval church would have been like - an explosion of colour and imagery. The frescoes at Gargilesse have faded; would their colours originally have been as saturated and as shocking as Carrasco's?

Monday, 4 July 2016

Watching the stained glass

We spent tonight at a concert in Saint Pere, Chartres, given by the Instrumentarium of Chartres. The Instrumentarium has commissioned luthiers to create musical instruments modelled on the sculptures and paintings in the cathedral, and the concert brought together the different sonorities of instruments and voices in this medieval church.

What fascinated me was the change in the stained glass. When we went into the church just before nine in the evening, the sun was golden, and the yellow stain and deep red of the windows glowed like flame. Even the roof was gilded with the light.

Half an hour later, the same windows seemed bleached, huge areas of white predominating, and the cool blues more prominent than the red or yellow. It was as if the temperature had dropped.

Later, Chartres en lumiere saw the glass lit from the inside. (The photo below is from a few years back. Chartres en lumiere sees the city lit up at night from April to October, until midnight, when the fairy cathedral turns back to stone.)

Most of the time, when we go to look at stained glass, we see it for five minutes. (Even worse, we see it in a museum, with a standardised, level light behind it.) But when you sit beneath a stained glass window for an hour or more, during a service or a concert, you begin to understand how its moods change; how the colours shift and shuffle, according to the sun and the weather. It's like the difference between meeting someone once, and knowing them so well you can tell what they're thinking just by looking at their face.

I think there's a message here for any traveller: take your time. Stay in a place long enough to see its different moods; the way a town wakes up, gets going, spends the long tired hours of a hot and dusty afternoon, prepared for night. See it in different lights; sunrise, sunset, the lurid stormy light of a sudden squall, or the slanting tearful light of a moist evening. You can hit five temples a day in India, but you'll never understand as much from that kind of travel as you will from spending a whole day in one of the great temples, like Meenakshi's in Madurai, or the Vipaksha temple in Hampi.

And when you take your time, you'll find one time when you get through the tourist appearances and see the place for what it is. Like the early morning in Pushkar, when I saw the sweet sellers stirring their cauldrons of halwa and heard shopkeepers singing 'Hari Krishna, Hari hari' on their way to work, or the indie concert I heard in a little cafe in Malang, Indonesia, which ended up with my being introduced to the artists and taught how to make 'rempah indo' spice tea.