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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.

 

 

 

 

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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A grave difference

Some people are good at spotting celebrities; others are good at spotting bargains. Me? I can spot a cemetery from miles away. And in a city I’ve never been to, wandering through a local cemetery is high of my list of things to do. Walking alongside the Miljacka River, surrounded by the Dinaric Alps, I happened to glance up and spot the Alifakovac Cemetery high on the hillside, nestled amidst the houses of Stari Grad. When I tried to find out more about it, I discovered that the neighbouring houses, built long after the cemetery itself first opened its grounds,  were built in a way that wouldn’t block each other’s view and sunlight.  Those city planners should clone themselves and outsource their talent to the rest of the world.

This Moslem cemetery dates back to the 15th century and is known for its Ottoman Turbe (or dome-like tombstones posted on four pillars). Here, many respected citizens lie beside travellers.  The cemetery is also a  Musafirsko cemetery (from the Turkish word musafir or traveller) where visitors who die while visiting the city are buried. There’s no such thing as shipping bodies home. Because of the rules about a quick burial, it’s traditional to bury a Muslim where they die.

The stark white tombstones brought to mind a military graveyard, like the one at St Avold in France. The clean lines and lack of ornamentation that is so visible in Christian and Jewish cemeteries I’ve visited gave this cemetery a different feel. Cars drive through but yet as a pedestrian, I found it difficult to wander and I wondered briefly how much clambering would have to be done to get to a particular grave. And do people actually ever visit?

There was a marked absence of flowers and candles and the other accoutrements that adorn Christian burial sites. I found this strangely relaxing. Unlike the cemetery in Zagreb, where many of Croatia’s famous sculptors have their work still on show, Alifakovac Cemetery has few monuments of note. Simple inscriptions mark narrow white pillars. Bodies are interred on their right side, facing Mecca, preferably not inside a coffin. I was curious to know more, so I Googled and found this: There is some debate about whether women can visit the grave of a loved one to remember him. While some Muslims say that this is forbidden, others think it’s OK to occasionally visit the grave site to remember the deceased and meditate on mortality. There was no one at the cemetery the day I visited. No one but me.

Down in the old town, nestled between cafés and restaurants lies another cemetery. It seemed strange to sit and drink a coffee within reach of a headstone but I was the only one who appeared to be remotely bothered. I found this juxapositioning of life and death a little disturbing and couldn’t quite put my finger on why. Perhaps it was a lack of reverence for the dead. Or the complete, unquestioned acceptance of the role of death in life. Or simply the incongruity of the tombstones and the canopies.

In the grounds of the Vekil Harč Mustafa mosque are more tombstones. A few weeks ago, during a visit to Ráckeve in Hungary, I came across Prince Eugene of Savoy. And here, in Sarajevo, I found him again. Following his campaign in 1679, a great fire swept through Sarajevo and this mosque was damaged, but quickly repaired. The tombstones we see here are known as  nišan tombstones.

Sarajevo seems to be at home with death. Perhaps its tumultuous history has a lot to do with this acceptance. As for me – I’m torn between the Muslim simplicity and the monuments favoured by Christians and Jews.

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.

In vino veritas

Not too long ago, some friends of mine in Ireland – aka ‘de wimmen’ – told me that it would be pointless my going to France with them as I neither drank wine nor ate olives. I was a tad peeved at this but not put out enough to do anything about it. I was happy with the odd gin and tonic and the occasional pint of cider on a hot day. Wine was way too pretentious for me.

The age of innocence

Sometime later, I was in a pub in Oxford with a mate of mine who had recently returned from a trip to New Zealand. He had ‘discovered’ wine and was full of interesting snippets. For instance, did you know that the first vines were planted in New Zealand by a missionary named Samuel Marsden in the north of the North Island in 1819, but that the World Atlas of Wine in 1970 doesn’t even mention New Zealand? Well, now you do! Anyway, according to my mate, the Montana Sauvignon Blanc was as close as you can get to liquid perfection. So, putting personal preferences aside, I indulged him and tried it. Just a glass. That particular combination of green grassy notes and ripe tropical fruit mellowed me.  I enjoyed it. And what’s more, it was now just a matter of downing an olive or two, and I’d earn my place on the ferry to France.

The thin red line

This new-found sophistication – oh no, dahling, I’m not a Chardonnay girl – left me breathless and eager to venture further afield. I began to winter my way around the world of white wine, with an occasional summertime dip into a chilled Rosé. Thankfully I realized early on that I was in little danger of losing my fortune to the champagne gods as I’d rather an Italian Prosecco, a Hungarian Pezsgo or Spanish Cava any day of the week, especially on Sundays! And to those who say that it’s a wine’s duty to be red, I have no answer. The red-wine smell wafting from an open bag of wine gums turns my stomach and even the promise of a thimbleful of the 1945 Chateau Mouton-Rothschild Jeroboam – a bottle of which sold at a Christie’s auction in 1997 for more than $100,000 – wouldn’t entice me from my knitting on a Friday night!

After a while though, I began to notice something peculiar. I actually take on the personality of the wine I’m drinking and become even more susceptible than usual to word association. Give me a glass or two of a Chilean Sauvignon from the Casablanca Valley and, like Bergman’s Isla Lund, I find myself crying dramatically to the nearest Bogart: Kiss me. Kiss me as if it were the last time. Now in a crowded club in Budapest, this may be no bad thing, but not when you’re at a reception for a missionary priest just back from Santiago…

A glass or two of the Spanish Marqués de Riscal and I’m positively dangerous. Hands flailing dramatically like a real-life toreros, I’m liable to punch-uate each sentence quite forcibly, which is all well and good if my listeners are wearing gumshields rather than hopeful smiles. The last poor unfortunate to risk a bottle of Riscal with me is still wondering what hit him…

Being Irish, I’m allowed a little poetic license. We need little encouragement to tell a story, but a glass or two of the Italian Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi will literally have me saying mass. It’s as if I split in two: one part of me can hear the other half tell the stories and just sits back and laughs, all the while sipping. Sometime I really amaze myself. Convincing some Canadian sailors from the HMS Iroquois that I was a novice nun had me rooting in my purse for my rosary beads…

A dark horse

But it’s the white wine from the Hungarian pince Nyakas that has been my undoing.  I just have to see the head of that black horse to feel the stirrings of invincibility that will only later be reined in by insecurities. I’ve said before that Budapest has a peculiar energy to it – an energy that seems to make anything possible. There is a life bubbling beneath the surface of this city that emerges every now and then to push you just a little bit further than you’d thought possible. Hopes and dreams manifest themselves in thoughts and actions. Couple that sense of power with a glass or two of a Nyakas Pinot Grigio and I’m capable of doing or saying just about anything. Which is why I’m sitting here, munching olives, trying to decipher the illegible note I made in my diary last night – did I really book a ferry to France?

First published in the Budapest Times 26 April 2010