2015 Grateful 37

In times when the Catholic Church in particular, and religious institutions in general, are receiving a bashing, it is nice to see that some churches are still attracting young people in their droves, to celebrate life in their own inimitable way. Yes, they might never darken the doors of the church itself, but they gather in their hundreds outside on the steps to sing and celebrate. They come from many different countries and mix and mingle in the shadow of one of the world’s most famous churches. Everyone welcome. Everyone accepted.

IMG_6378 (800x600)IMG_6388 (800x600)This is what happens each evening on the steps of the Sacre Coeur in Paris. Hundreds gather to sit on the steps and listen to impromptu concerts as enterprising buskers tout their CDs in the wake of their live performances. Hawkers sell bottles of Heineken at €5 a throw, still cold, despite the heat. There are no deals – perhaps they are all agents for a monopoly, or perhaps they have agreed amongst themselves, made a pact to get the most out of those who have forgotten that BYOB is de rigeur for this particular party.

IMG_6413 (800x600)Lots of people are drinking and yet no one is drunk. Perhaps this has something to do with the Cathedral looming in the background, banners hanging from its portals declaring that it has been open every day for 125 years. An amazing feat, given that I’ve often been hard pushed in Ireland and Hungary to find a church open mid-week.

Situated in Montmartre (the Mount of Martyrs), where worshiping of some sort or other has been going on since the Druids, the Sacre Couer dates back to the end of the nineteenth century. It’s a stunning piece of architecture that came into being as a result of a promise. Back in 1870, when France and Germany were at war (Germany won and partially occupied France as a result), two men – Alexandre Legentil and Hubert Rohault de Fleury – saw France’s troubles not as political but as spiritual. Their idea was to build a church dedicated to the Sacred Heart in reparation. So they did. And it’s still there.

IMG_6425 (800x598)As the evening draws on, the lights in Paris switch on, one by one, gradually lighting up the city below. It’s a show not to be missed, free for all to see, and so compelling that many come back again, and again. The atmosphere is electric. It’s what church and religion should be – and sadly are not.

IMG_6418 (800x600)The only anomaly are the three security agents on patrol, dressed in combat fatigues, touting what guns that I imagine AK47s to look like. They walk in circles, constantly scouting 360 degrees, fingers on the triggers, ready for whatever comes their way. I wondered briefly whether this was a reaction to the recent terrorist attacks or whether it’s always been this way. I have no way of knowing. I would hope it’s reactionary and given time, will no longer be necessary. But perhaps, that too, is a sign of changing times.

This week, a week where patience (a limited commodity in my world on a good day) was tried and tested, where frustrations at my own inabilities ran high, and where self-berating was the order of the day, I’m glad of this memory. It was a lovely evening, on a lovely weekend, a weekend when I got to know Paris a little better and was big enough to admit that I was wrong about her.



Memories – or the lack of them

I was in Paris many years ago as part of an Inter-rail trip around Europe that I embarked upon myself. Alone. On my tod. I cringe when I think of how naive I was to think I could travel on my own, without mishap, for three weeks, based on the relative success of  a single weekend away in London with a friend from college, and an uneventful two weeks in the Canaries with said same friend. I was so unqualified it was pathetic.

I know I spent a night in Paris. Perhaps two – and maybe twice – one day/night each time? I’m not sure. I know I was definitely there though because I walked off an overnight train from somewhere and was half-way up the platform before I realised that my arms were swinging. And they should have been holding the bag that had my passport, my Eurocheques (remember them?), my credit card and my cash.I did what any self-respecting naive innocent abroad would do when her mammy seemed oh so very far away and unable to right her world … I sat down on my rucksack on the platform and cried.

A lovely French woman in her early 30s, whose name I can’t remember, took pity of me. I remember applying the word ‘chic’ to her in my mind and it finally embodying something tangible.  She contacted security. They located my stuff. And then she took me home to her flat and let me sleep for a few hours until she had to go to work. She even fed me breakfast.

I know I took a tour. There is no way I wouldn’t have (is there?). But I have zero recollection of seeing the three pillars of Parisian sightseeing: the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe, and the Champs-Elysées . I had thought that when I went back a couple of weeks ago, unchecked memories would come flooding back – but they didn’t. The grave of the unknown soldier that lies under the Arc rang a faint bell, but so faint that it might well have been my next-door neighbour’s phone.

IMG_6475 (800x600)The Eiffel Tower is still standing (even though when it was built in 1859, it wasn’t meant to be permanent). It’s besieged by thousands of tourists who patiently queue to ascend to the top (it’s the most-visited paid monument in the world ~ 6 million a year last count). I didn’t feel the need. Since I discovered that the same chap  (Gustav Eiffel) who designed it also designed Nyugati Station in Budapest and the Statue of Liberty’s spine, some of its magic has been diluted along with its exclusivity.

IMG_6627 (800x594)Mind you, its tenacity is admirable – it was to be demolished in 1909 but was saved when some bright spark had the idea of repurposing it as a radio antenna. It was originally intended for Barcelona, in Spain, but the Spanish rejected the plans… that’s a little like some not-so-bright spark in Bloomsbury turning down the US rights to Harry Potter as they didn’t think he’d appeal to Americans (don’t know where I heard that… bloody memory… it’ll come to me). On some days, it’s taller than others, by about 15cm, because of the temperature and the paint that takes to coat it weighs as much as ten elephants. Or so they say. The best view I had of it was at night, from the Trocadero, when its twenty thousand lightbulbs were lit up. Absolutely stunning.

Napoleon commissioned the Arc de Triomphe in 1806 to honour his army, who, the previous year, had been victorious against the Russo-Austrian army at Austerlitz. He told them that they would ‘return home through archs of triumph’, but it wasn’t completed till 1836, by which stage Napoleon was dead and the army had presumably already gotten home.

IMG_6457 (800x600)As a structure, it is magnificent, every metre of its 49m x 45m x 22m expanse. For me though it’s the tomb of the unknown soldier buried there in 1920 as a reminder of the 1.5 million French soldiers who died in the Great War – that’s where the poignancy is. Apparently, every day at 6pm since 1923, French veterans and serving soldiers rekindle the flame. I can’t vouch for though but if it does indeed happen, it’s a lovely thought. I’m not in favour of war or fighting of any kind, yet those who have laid down their lives so other can live free deserve to be remembered.

The Arc sits at the top of the Champs-Elysées , the city’s favourite boulevard. Did you know that in Greek mythology, the Champs Elysées are where heroes stay after death? I didn’t, but Napoleon’s choice of location makes sense now. Just under 2 km in length, it’s 70 m wide – and takes a while to cross. It’s really only been back in fashion for about 40-something years, after being resuscitated in the 1980s. Now it’s home to all the biggest, most exclusive brand names in the world. Curiously, apparently none of the many famous painters who ever lived in Paris have painted it, so one has to wonder what the hype is about? Yes, they’re home to the Jardin des Tuilieres and provide a suitable address for many notable buildings but Andrássy in Budapest is longer at 2.3 km even if at its widest (45.5) it doesn’t even come close – and it rates just as high, if not higher, in this mind.

I’m still getting my head around the fact that I have zero recollection of my first foray to Paris, apart from the abiding distaste it left me with. I find it hard to believe that it was so uneventful, so forgettable, that I simply erased the trip from my memory. But going back this time was like going there for the first time – albeit with a lingering sense of deja vu that refused to be pinned down. Would I go back a third time? Definitely. Perhaps it’s a city that matures with age – my age.





2015 Grateful 38

You look at me and what do you first notice? My size? My shape? The colour of my eyes? My glasses? My hair? My attitude? The size of my ears? How I’m dressed? What you see is pretty much the finished product. Yes, superficially I might decide to go blonde again, or pile back on the pounds, but the essence of me will still be recognisable.

Think of what a sculptor sees when he looks at a block of granite or marble.  To the untrained eye, it’s a block of stone. To them, though, it has form, shape, and essence, all of which they need to bring to the surface so that other, less-trained eyes, can see them too.

In hindsight, my rather tame reaction to seeing one of the world’s most acclaimed masterpieces might well have stemmed from the fact that I’d spent the previous few hours touring the Musée Rodin on the other side of the Seine. I’ve always been a great fan of his, and number The Kiss as one of my all-time favourite statues. One day, when I have money, I’ll have a copy in my living room that I can enjoy every day. Right now, I’m settling for a framed poster from the gift shop.

IMG_6709 (600x800)Rodin himself wasn’t all that impressed by it, calling it a ‘huge knick-knack’, but there we differ. I was taken with it the first time I saw a copy and could look at it for hours.

The Kiss originally represented Paolo and Francesca, two characters borrowed, once again, from Dante’s Divine Comedy: slain by Francesca’s husband who surprised them as they exchanged their first kiss, the two lovers were condemned to wander eternally through Hell.

The museum was undergoing renovations so I’m hoping that’s why it was stuck in a corner that didn’t do it justice. I’d hate to think that everyone else sees it as a knick-knack, too.

IMG_6674 (600x800)Out in the grounds of the Musée Rodin, along with a series of other individual pieces, many of which end up on the famous Gates of Hell, is the even more famous of Rodin’s creations –  The Thinker. He originally had the poet Dante in mind, but the statue apparently evolved to represent all poets and creators. Just the male ones, obviously. It’s a curious piece to see up close and in person. I’d never realised that the muscle detail was so obvious and in a certain light, it didn’t take much imagination to fancy he was real.

IMG_6684 (800x600)IMG_6687 (800x600)The detail in each bronze sculpture was extraordinary. The day was wet and overcast. It was raining. The ground was muddy and the visitors few in number. Perhaps that added to the eeriness of the place, a setting that would, I’m sure, be so much different on a bright, warm, summer’s day. But this seemed more appropriate somehow.

IMG_6689 (593x800) IMG_6691Each statute took us one step closer to seeing the Gates of Hell, the ultimate collection of over 200 pieces that Rodin created separately, a collection which was not cast in bronze until after his death. He never saw for himself what IMG_6694 (800x600)so many enjoy today.  It’s stunningly grotesque. There is a tangible pressure from those who simply come to take its photo to cut your scrutiny short – to get out of the way. Best ignore it. Take time to digest, to explore, to see, and despite the damp cold, to feel the heat from the flames of hell.

Rodin began drawing at the tender age of 10. And although he had talent,  the École des Beaux-Arts, a prestigious Parisian art school, refused him admission three times. He spent a couple of decades as a decorative brick-layer, and it wasn’t until he was in his forties that he started his artistic work.There’s hope for me yet.

IMG_6678 (600x800)He considered his best piece to be a statue of Honoré de Balzac, which he described as ‘the result of a lifetime, the very pivot of [his] aesthetic’. He eschewed the idea of a poet/writer in contemporary dress, quill poised over paper, and took the more ballsy approach of cloaking Balzac and his belly in the dressing gown he usually wore while writing. A minor uproar ensued when the piece was unveiled in 1898 at the Salon. It was rejected by the commissioning body who said that it ‘regrets to have the duty to protest against the rough model exhibited at the Salon by M. Rodin, which it refuses to recognize as the statue of Balzac.’ Admittedly, it didn’t do a whole helluva lot for me either, but then again, me and Balzac aren’t on a nodding acquaintance.

Still though, I have to admire Rodin’s courage to challenge society and convention, to stay true to his convictions, and to stand by the product of his beliefs. In a week that has been thought-provoking and somewhat life-altering, I’m grateful to have Auguste Rodin as an inspiration – late bloomers are beacons of hope on what at times might seem a pretty flat horizon. And his work is a strong reminder that inside the ordinary lies something special.

If you’re in Paris, Musée Rodin is worth a visit.




It’s not been long enough, I hear you cry. And yet 72 hours is ample time when  you’re old enough know what you want and what you don’t want from life. Okay – so you might blur the edges a little on occasion, but there comes an age when you’re quick enough to recognise what you like and what you don’t.

IMG_6293 (800x600)IMG_6298 (800x600)IMG_6296 (600x800)IMG_6301 (800x600)And so it was with Paris. The distaste I’ve been carrying around for years has been replaced by a healthy respect. And while I doubt very much if I could live there, there are elements of the city that are wonderful. The huge expanses of green areas such as Jardin des Tuileries where you can borrow a sun chair (for free) and sit next to the fountain contemplating the meaning of life or simply debating whether or not to have an ice-cream. Paris seems to be in a constant state of thought. There’s a seriousness about the place that implies lots of deep thinking. It’s not pessimistic. It’s not depressive. It’s not moody. It’s more like a sobriety that speaks of sombre intent. As if the weight of the world rests on its shoulders. And given such responsibility (quite possibly a figment of my imagination) Jardin des Tuileries is a welcome respite. It’s a heady place where life-changing decisions might come easy and the mania of city living is kept at bay. I was particularly impressed with the sculptures, the lily ponds, and the carousel and would highly recommend it as a place to pass an hour or three for some excellent people watching.

IMG_6518 (800x598)IMG_6720 (800x600)I was less impressed with the queues, long lines of people snaking towards the entrance to anywhere that is listed in the guide books. I’ve long since lost what patience is needed to wait in line for anything other than something that’s on my bucket list. But I braved the Louvre to see the Mona Lisa. I’d been told that it was distinctly underwhelming, and I needed to see for myself. The glass pyramid that is now an entryway and billed as one of the city’s best-loved modern landmarks, didn’t quite do it for me. (Mind you, it is impressive how it inverts.) The juxtaposition of new and old is something I’ve never quite got my head around, which is strange for someone who counts teens and nonagenarians amongst her friends.

IMG_6745 (600x800)Anyway, the queue moved quickly and in about 30 minutes we were inside, alongside thousands of others. And in sharp contrast to the orderly lines outside, the Mona Lisa herself looked calmly down on sheer bedlam. It was a free for all. A mêlée, as the French might say. Jostling, pushing, heaving, elbowing, the most improper behaviour imaginable – it was all visible. And what was everyone doing? Taking selfies. I ask you. I don’t think I saw one person, other than an intense 12-year-old stop and actually look at the painting itself.

Lisa Gherardini Giocondo (did you know that was her real name?) was about 25 when she posed for Leonardo, at the bequest (and expense) of her husband. The painting began its life as My Lady Lisa (Mia Donna Lisa) and was soon abridged to Monna Lisa before the typo was introduced making it the Mona Lisa that six million or so people visit every year. The painting is priceless so it’s not insured! It was stolen back in 1911, when Vincenzo Peruggia, a museum employee, smuggled it out under his smock. She turned up two years later when he tried to sell the painting in Florence. She’s sweet. I’m glad I got to see her up close and personal. But my living room can live without the gal.

IMG_6726 (800x600)IMG_6729 (600x800)I was more impressed with The Winged Victory of Samothrace as viewing was a sight more comfortable. And I was very taken with the ceilings. But truth be told, there were far too many people in the building for it to be enjoyable. Perhaps if I had a background in art history, or was an artist or a sculptor myself, I might have been able to quell the rising panic that such crowds induce. But I haven’t and I’m not. I am glad I went though. Now I no longer have to wonder and as I had no great expectations to begin with, I wasn’t disappointed. Just a tad underwhelmed.



When talent lives on

I was in Paris many moons ago and didn’t care for it much. I have only vague recollections of being there, no lasting memories other than a rather poor impression of the city and its people. This has been fed over the years by the somewhat stereotypical generality that all Parisians are rude and arrogant and not at all helpful.

Fast forward some twenty-odd years and I found myself back in Paris again. Getting off the airport bus at Montparnasse, we went in search of the metro. It took us an age. Navigating the ticket machine took longer. Long enough for the old feelings to resurface to the point where I was cursing under my breath and wondering why I’d ever thought the city deserved a second chance.

IMG_6315 (800x600)Later that afternoon, having decided to spend the following day hopping on and off a tour bus, we went to visit Père Lachaise, the largest cemetery in Paris. I quite fancied spending a couple of hours amongst the dead. The list of interned is impressive with so many talented people lying beneath stone slabs that it was just a little surreal. The cemetery itself, all 110 acres, is a warren that is difficult to navigate, even with a map, section as it is into divisions that apply a numbering system that defeats any logic I’m familiar with. But we had helpers, elderly people who were happy to guide us to where we wanted to go, all the while chatting away in French, oozing friendliness, asking if we’d read this person or that, and suggesting famous French artists of whom we’d never heard. They put paid to my long-held belief about Parisian arrogance. They couldn’t have been nicer.

IMG_6319 (600x800)Jim Morrison was on the list, not because I would recognise a single song he sang, but because I have very fond memories of working with a German friend in San Diego who thought he was the closest thing to God on Earth. His was the only grave with a police guard. He died of a suspected heroin overdose in a bath tub in Paris at the all too young age of 27. Morrison made the news again last year when Marianne Faithful said in an interview that he had been accidentally killed by her ex-boyfriend. Perhaps only Morrison knows what really happened. Many of those who had come to visit and to leave their tokens of remembrance weren’t even live when The Doors were all the rage, suggesting, to this fanciful mind at least, that it is through music and the arts that we can best achieve immortality.

IMG_6350 (800x600)IMG_6352 (591x800)As we wandered up and down the footpaths, we spotted famous names that rang a bell with me. I knew of Marcel Proust but unlike my more literary companion, the well-read EZ, I could remember reading nothing by him. À la recherche du temps perdu rang a bell,  as she ran down a list of his novels that she had read, but aside from a vague stirring that I might have waded through that for my Leaving Cert French, I felt nothing. A quotation of his to do with the real voyage of discovery being not seeking new landscapes but seeing with new eyes fluttered to the edge of my subconscious but didn’t get any farther.  I did remember Balzac though, and the novel Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress but had forgotten that he didn’t actually write it. And I know I saw the movie, too. Shame on me. I resolved, on the spot, to brush up on my classics at some stage in the next twenty years – such ignorance is embarrassing.

IMG_6335 (800x600)IMG_6367 (600x800)Edith Piaf I recognised of course. How much of that is due to the fact that when I first came to Budapest, I was a semi-regular at the club called after her. I couldn’t swear that I knew of her existence before then though. I’d like to think I did, but hand on my heart, I’m not at all sure.

Frédéric Chopin, I knew, too. How could I not, after seven painstaking years of practising the piano, struggling up through Grade 8 at the Royal Irish Academy of Music, and today not able to play anything other than the opening bars of Scott Joplin’s, The Entertainer. Coincidentally, working on a book this week, I read that during WWII, Nazi propagandists falsified biographies of favoured Polish composers so that they could ignore the ban on performances of Polish music. Hans Frank, Governor-General of Occupied Poland, declared that ‘Friedrich Schopping was a genius and hence could not have been Polish. He was the finest composer born in German lands.’ How history can rewrite itself. Chopin died in Paris of tuberculosis at the age of 39.

IMG_6341 (800x600)IMG_6338 (600x800)My saviour that day though was Oscar Wilde. Him I knew. Him I could quote. Him I had read. I hadn’t realised though that his tomb had caused such controversy. The sphinx’s missing testicles are said to be serving as a paperweight somewhere. A glass barrier was erected in 2011 to deter people from kissing the stone (in a nod to Wilde’s thought that ‘a kiss may ruin a human life’) and leaving an imprint, a fashionable trend that upset the tomb’s guardians, the lipstick apparently eroding the stone. It’s an odd piece, with a fascinating story. And while many have tried (and failed) to read some Oscar into what the sculptor had in mind, at least the epitaph pays tribute to one of his greatest works – the Ballad of Reading Gaol.

And alien tears will fill for him
Pity’s long-broken urn,
For his mourners will be outcast men,
And outcasts always mourn.

IMG_6332 (800x600)IMG_6363 (600x800)A grave that stopped me in my sentimental tracks was that of Bernard Verhlac, one of the French cartoonists killed in the Charlie Hebdo attack in January this year. His was a far more recent death not brought about by disease or old age or risky living. His was a life cut short so randomly as to make no sense at all.

There’s a part of me that believes we choose the lives our souls need to live to learn the lessons we need to learn or serve a purpose we need to serve and we get to do it repeatedly. But that said, sometimes it’s beyond why… so far beyond that perhaps the only rejoinder is ‘why not?’

Père Lachaise is a beautiful spot to while away an afternoon and recalibrate. A place to remember that the world is full of talented people, each making a difference in their own way. Not all of us have to make centre stage and be immortalised in prose or verse or vinyl. The rest of us are simply those other people.

I am determined to get around to catching up on my classics, but until I do, I take comfort in Wilde’s position that

Education is an admirable thing, but it is well to remember from time to time that nothing that is worth knowing can be taught

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Brittany: bicycles and bales of hay

In this particular part of France, in Brittany, you’re more likely to pass a bicycle on the road than a car, which somewhat explains the phenomenon that is the Tour de France. It’s incredibly quiet and very, very bucolic. The towns and villages we drive through are like ageing dowagers; you can still see vestiges of their former beauty but the plethora of a vendre signs on shuttered windows tells its own story. Each village is a rainbow of flowering plants: pinks, blues, purples, reds and yellows. Doors and window frames, once painted bright blues and greens, have faded to a more solicitous shade of weather-beaten glory. Rusty hinges and corroded nails, cling solidly to flaking wood. Ivy creeps up the walls, shading window ledges, providing homes for sparrows and starlings. Tall fields of green maize and golden fields of wheat and barley line the narrow country roads. We brake once, as a bushy-tailed fox crosses the road in front of us. He is the only other traffic we meet on our way to La Trinité-Porhoët.

With its thirteenth century Romanesque church whose floor slopes downwards at an angle of about 10 degrees, La Trinité-Porhoët is just one example of towns and villages that somehow have managed to avoid the clutches of twenty-first century consumerism. You can still see the lavoire where women would come to do their laundry, beating theirclothes to cleanliness with stones, winter and summer alike.

Imagine washing your clothes here in winter!

Or Rohan, where the magnificent Abbey of Timadeuc, built in 1841, is now home to some Cistercian monks and quite famous for its cheese. Monday morning mass at the Abbey is concelebrated by 10 priests. Fourteen monks of all ages sit in the stalls, outnumbering the congregation. The granite simplicity and the absence the usual siren of statues so common in other Roman Catholic churches, give the place a peculiarly blessed feel. The acoustics are wonderful. The monks’ chanting echoes under the stone quadripartite vaulted roof. The semicircular arches make it seem longer than it actually is. I lose myself in the timbre of their song and although my Leaving-Cert French hovers tantalisingly in some far off recess of my mind, I don’t need or want to understand what’s being said. The simplicity of it all is simply beautiful.

About an hour outside Rennes (the closest airport to CM’s small holding in Landes Ardennes), the area around Coëtlogon is mainly farmland. The place is remarkable for its lack of people. Fields of freshly cut hay, stacked in round bales, testify to an activity that has obviously taken place but where are all the farm workers? This countryside is like a rural rendition of the Marie Celeste. The only other beings I see are two peacocks, strutting down the road, lord and lady of all that they survey.

If the French do anything well, it’s eating. Lunch in the medieval town of Josselin, home to the Basilique Notre Dame du Roncier, is nothing short of glorious. Although 60 miles from the coast, moules marinieres et frites seem to be the order of the day. I count 108 mussels on my plate and the chips…the chips… I can see now why the French claim ownership of the ubiquitous French fry. For once, I am not driving, so I quite happily enjoy a simple, uncomplicated dry French wine.

Perhaps, a few years ago, France was cheap. No longer. Oh, you can still get a house that needs a bit of work for a fraction of what you’d pay in Ireland, but everything else seems to have moved to level par. €10 for a brioche at the market. €16 for a spit-roasted chicken. €1.35 for a litre of petrol. And with the gap between sterling and the euro closing daily, those who have left Britain for Brittany are finding it harder than expected to make ends meet. Would I live here, so far from the coast, in such unforgiving heat? No. But it’s a lovely place to spend some time and recharge the batteries, mainly because there’s little to do and nothing to distract you from doing it. Perhaps GPs the world over should consider prescribing a week in Brittany as a tonic for those of us stressed and stretched beyond belief by the anxiety of daily living. Unplugged, disconnected and free from that pressing need to ‘do’, it’s the perfect cure for a manic mind.