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Friday, 27 March 2015

Friday 27th March: Tempting Fate

This morning Celine and I decided to visit the town of Quimperle. Although the town is a popular tourist spot neither of us have been there before. Celine had read a report in the local paper advertising a stall selling books on Breton culture at the brocante (flea market), and this was the reason for our visit. 

We took a chance and went in my car. I tried to ignore the strange whining noises the engine was making while Celine was talking about going to Paimpont, where Merlin was supposed to have lived. She wants to include something about the forest in her book. So far she's collected hundreds of interviews from many elderly residents detailing their childhood memories. She's decided to include only the most interesting so at the moment she's trying to decide what to keep and what to throw out.
I don't usually listen to music in the car as I find it distracting but didn't mind when Celine switched on the radio as it took my mind off the noise from the engine. She searched the channels until she found a local one playing traditional Breton music. A very interesting interview followed with the lead singer of the band (of which I didn't get the name) who was discussing the changing attitudes towards Breton music and culture. Celine translated as we drove (chugged) along.
Until a revival of interest in the 50s and 60s Breton music was in danger of disappearing altogether and it wasn't until the mid-century the Breton language was banned from schools; even children being punished for speaking it. I believe parents were banned from giving their children local names right up until the end of the century. Now things are very different, and Breton culture is very much alive with the distinctive Breton flag being seen everywhere and the language being taught in schools for a few hours a week. I suggested to Celine now would be a good time to contact the local radio stations to discuss her book.
Quimperle is certainly a very picturesque town with a riverside setting. We walked around the medieval centre and took a look inside the 11th century Abbey. Although photography is prohibited, Celine sneaked a few photos of the beautiful 16th century altarpiece on her phone. The oldest building in the town is a lovely half timbered house with a cafe nearby where we did a bit of people watching.

Eventually, we found the market. The place was packed out even though it's a week day. There were all sorts of stalls; home crafts, antiques, books, clothes, and of course, food. I was pleased to discover several albums of stamps from Dominica, St. Lucia and Martinique. I was inspecting these when Celine called me over. She was at one of the bookstalls, talking to a small dark haired person dressed in black trousers, black boots, a biker's jacket and a black beret: Josephine from the bookshop in my village. I paid for my albums and went over to join them. Josephine was in a cheerful mood, much more animated than when we first met. She showed me two bags of books she'd bought. Apparently, one of the stall holders was from England and selling off his history text books from university. I helped her carry them to her car; an ancient 2CV Deux Chevaux (no surprise). She said she'd always wanted one of these back home in New Orleans and dreamed one day of owning one. Hers is from 1990, the last year of production, and so far, hadn't given her any trouble.
We said goodbye and after about ten more minutes of browsing Celine and I decided to make our way back. Celine showed me a book she'd found called A Childhood in Brittany, with numerous pictures, recounting the author's recollections of growing up in the thirties. It's just the sort of thing she's looking for. I was also pleased with my stamps, so, a worthwhile trip.
We hadn't driven far when Celine pointed to the side of the road up ahead. It was Josephine. She was standing glaring at her car; fumes were streaming from the hood. With people hooting as they passed by, we managed to push the car along the road and into a supermarket car park. 

We said we'd give her a lift back to her hotel in Carnac and, if she felt her French wasn't good enough, Celine offered to phone the towing company and garage for her.
Josephine was so distressed that Celine had to remind her to bring her books. She then had to go back again to collect her pipe and tobacco. (I don't think I've known many women who smoke a pipe). She said she didn't know why she was so upset by this as she's had to deal with much more in the past; including Hurricane Katrina back in New Orleans.
Celine told her about my writing and Josephine suggested I give her some copies to sell in her shop. She also offered to put some posters up in the window. I asked if she was keen on doing any singing and told her to phone Alexander. I also mentioned that Andre, the owner of the restaurant in Carnac, might be interested in booking her. Celine asked if she'd had many customers in the shop. She admitted things had been quiet. We suggested she do an official opening night with cheese and wine. Celine was enthusiastic about this, saying she could help Josephine prepare everything but Josephine didn't say much.
We dropped her off at the hotel. Celine took down all the car details, promising to phone the garage.
Back at the cottage the sun came out and we were able to sit outside for a while. Celine mentioned the opening night idea but I can't see it happening! I got the impression Josephine was focused on the books she's interested in and not the books her customers might like. Perhaps she doesn't need the money. She doesn't seem to have much of a head for business.
We had a Spanish omelette for dinner and finished off a bottle of wine.
After Celine phoned the garage to arrange for Josephine's car to be towed in, I told her how, with all the strange noises it's been making, I thought my car was about to die.
She warned me not to tempt fate.
Listened to some Billie Holiday later: so similar to Josephine's voice.

Thursday, 19 March 2015

Thursday 19th March: Doppelgänger

Karl was quiet on the journey yesterday. We were on our way to pick up some furniture from a house near Dinan. Whilst the blues music was playing at full volume on his CD player, he wasn't singing along to it; definitely out of character. I asked him what the problem was.
Apparently his daughter, Stefanie, has moved into a squat with her boyfriend, Tomas. She's still attending lectures and keeping up with her university course, but he's concerned she's on the point of dropping out. She's always been a clever girl but impulsive and prone to making rash decisions. She's besotted with Tomas, but Karl believes she's going to get hurt. I'm inclined to agree. Although I've only met Tomas once, he seemed very self-centred and domineering. I suggested Karl should ask them down to visit for a while. This way he can see what's going on.
It took us a while to find the house. The owner had e-mailed directions which were impossible to follow and we drove down the lane several times before we found the place. The house; traditional stone built had an air of neglect about it. The front was overgrown with weeds and the paint on the shutters and door, once a bright blue, was beginning to flake.
The owner was waiting outside when we arrived; a slim, pretty woman, with dark hair, almost black. At first, she appeared to be tall. However, she was standing next to a door frame you needed to duck under, and it turned out she couldn't be much more than five foot tall. She introduced herself as Natalie.
We followed her through a long narrow hallway into a dining room. The room was large and bright; most of the space taken up with half empty bookcases. Two windows looked out onto the back of the property; a large garden with lawns and a circular flower bed invaded with bindweed and nettles. In the centre of the room stood a solid mahogany table and chairs. Natalie also showed us a sideboard which stood in an alcove leading from the dining room. She was talking about the house and describing how her children had been happy growing up there. I thought there was a sadness about her, as if she had been alone for some time. Karl carried out his usual inspection of the furniture but I got the impression he was more interested in Natalie. He kept glancing at her with a puzzled expression and I wondered if she'd noticed; if she had, she gave no sign. She was more concerned in relating her story. She ran her hand along the sideboard, telling us it had been a wedding present from her parents in law. For a moment I thought she was about to cry. She and Karl eventually agreed a price for the furniture and she asked if we wanted tea or coffee. Before waiting for the answer, she turned and walked towards the kitchen.
The kitchen was a large tiled room with fitted wooden cabinets and a traditional cooking range. While we sat at the table, Karl was quiet and, again, I noticed him studying Natalie. True, she was attractive, but I had the feeling there was some other reason for his interest; as if he recognised her from somewhere.
When she sat down, she explained that the house and contents had to be sold to pay off debts. Her husband had left and was living in a modern apartment in Rennes. In the last few years they had many problems, money, illness, problems with their children and there had been an affair. Her children were grown up, living in different parts of the country. She laughed and said she didn't know why she was telling us this and was sorry to bore us. (I didn't mind. I'm always keen to hear about other people's lives). Of course, I felt sorry for her. It was obvious she'd been very hurt.
She watched as we loaded the furniture into the van and waved as we drove off. Before Karl had a chance to turn his music on I asked if he'd met her before. He seemed annoyed, wanting to know why I should think that. I said it was because I'd noticed him staring at her and asked if he fancied her. He ignored this last question and just switched his CD on.
We stopped for lunch in La Place des Merciers, a square surrounded by timber-framed buildings in the old town of Dinan. It was here that Karl told me about Julia, a woman he had known in Germany. Apparently Natalie was her exact double; her doppelgänger. He said she even had the similar taste in clothes and had the same gestures and mannerisms as Julia. Seeing her had brought back painful memories. 

After Karl's wife died he wasn't interested in seeing anybody for a long time but eventually met Julia, Stefanie's teacher, at a parent's evening. There was an instant attraction and they started dating. It soon became clear that Julia had a drink problem. At first Karl thought nothing of this, but when he stayed at Julia's apartment he discovered bottles of whiskey and vodka hidden in cupboards and under the bed. She denied she had a problem, insisting she could stop at any time. Things took a turn for the worse. She was under a lot of stress at school and confessed to Karl that she was drinking during the lunch break and between lessons. A parent complained that her breath smelt of alcohol and she was suspended. Karl suggested she seek professional help, but even at this stage she still denied she had a problem. He wanted to help her but didn't know how. A week after being suspended she phoned him to say she'd been caught drink driving and was going to lose her licence. She begged him to come round. It was half three in the morning and when she opened the door he was shocked at her appearance: she was a mess. The apartment was unrecognisable; half eaten takeaways and empty bottles scattered everywhere. Karl lost his patience and told her that, unless she got professional help, their relationship was finished.
Several days later he had a phone call from her sister. Julia had taken an overdose and had been found dead in her apartment. This was a terrible shock to Karl. Soon after her death Karl moved to Brittany while his daughter, Stefanie, stayed with her aunt in Berlin to finish her schooling.
It had been such a shock yesterday for Karl seeing Natalie and bringing back all these memories. For a long time after the event he had blamed himself; replaying their last meeting in his head. I said I didn't see what else he could have done. 

Back at my cottage I was thinking about all this when there was a knock at the door and Ann Sofie came in, followed by Benjamin and Madeleine. They had been making Madeleines, a kind of Breton butter cake. Madeleine was very excited about the cakes having her name. It's difficult to understand her speech sometimes, but she's only three! They brought a whole plate of cakes for me and stayed for a while to help me eat them.

They certainly cheered me up! 

Monday, 9 March 2015

Monday 9th March: Ligonberries

Stayed at home today as Solange has gone to Paris with her sister and niece and I'm looking after Pepin until Pieter gets home from work. Solange's niece is hoping to get into the Sorbonne and they've gone to look around the college. They're staying overnight and will be back tomorrow. Pepin has spent most of the day sitting at the fence, staring at the driveway and pining for Solange. I carried him into the cottage several times but it wasn't long before he ran outside again and took up his usual position. There's devotion for you!

Ann-Sofie's mother and brother left yesterday after staying in the gite next door. I saw them a few times during their stay and on the Saturday evening I was invited over for a traditional Swedish dinner. Ann-Sofies's mother, Linda, looks so much like her daughter. When I mentioned Ann-Sofies's drawings they showed me Linda's website where she designs greeting cards. She has many different designs and sells them all over the world.
Linda said they'd been to Dinan that morning and were very impressed with the historic town. She showed them to me Ann Sofie's sketches of Place des Merciers with it's half timbered houses: they're very good. 

Max, Ann-Sofie's brother, who has Downs Syndrome, was very quiet. I think maybe a little shy. He shook my hand and gave me a formal bow. Both he and Ann Sofie laughed. Apparently he's been given strict instructions not to hug people until he knows them.
Whilst in Dinan, Max had insisted on climbing the 158 steps to the top of the Tour de L'Horloge but only managed to get halfway. He got scared and had to be led back down to wait with Linda. Ann-Sofie said the views from the top were amazing. She could even see the distant outline of Mont St Michel.
While they spoke Swedish to Max, they switched to English for me. Max was obviously confused by this, and looked worried. I asked Ann-Sofie if he was still interested in Super heroes. She told me he was really looking forward to the new Batman film due to be released in 2016 in which Batman battles Superman. I asked which actor was his favourite. He whispered to Ann-Sofie that he likes Chris (Christian Bale). He also likes Henry Cavill who plays Superman in Man of Steel and will also feature in the new film. Linda has helped him write to the actors, who've sent signed photos of themselves. He's very proud of them and they are now up on his bedroom wall. 

The diner was delicious. The main course was Kottbullar met Poatismos (had to ask her to write this) which is meatballs with mashed potatoes in a gravy sauce. This was served with lingonberries preserve which Linda had brought with her. I've never tried this before. Apparently, ligonberries are used in Sweden in the same way people in the U.K use ketchup. They put it on everything! The taste is quite bitter, a little similar to raspberries. (I decided not to put any with my meatballs). We had Swedish pancakes for dessert (again with ligonberries). Linda said the fruit has been used in Sweden for centuries as the fruit can be preserved through the long winters. Max put half a jar on his and got teased by Ann-Sofie. It's obvious she is very close to her family and very protective of Max. 
Linda mentioned her homesickness, telling her she should stay here as her French has greatly improved. I said she'll regret it later if she leaves so soon. Although Solange and Pieter are very good to her it wouldn't surprise me if she goes back home.
Linda was very impressed with Brittany. She'd hired a car and they've been to Rennes a few times and for walks on the beach at Carnac. She really liked Quimper. They spent a whole day there where all three had sketched a view of the city from one of the bridges crossing the Odet River. Ann-Sofie told Max to fetch his drawing to show me but he refused to.
The rest of the evening passed quickly. Linda gave me some Swedish recipes, and told me how they preserve food (including Ann-Sofie's despised pickled herrings!)
This morning, before they left for the airport, she brought over a box of Swedish Toscas, which are really almond tarts: a thank you present for helping Ann-Sofie with her writing. She said she's worried about her, knowing how much she misses home, but wants her to stay till the Summer. I promised I'll try my best to encourage her to stay.
Pieter came over this evening to collect Pepin, who was sulking on my sofa. As soon as he spotted Pieter he leapt up, tail wagging, although I think Solange is the person he misses the most.

I notice Ann-Sofie is still here. I had a feeling she might have left with her family. Hopefully she'll settle now; knowing they'll come to visit.