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‘The Boy, the Bicycle and the Bone-Setter’

The Boy, the Bicycle and the Bone-Setter by Jean-Michel Papirchuk

There are events in one’s life that linger and live on long after they took place and what I’m about to recount is one such happening when just a young lad growing up in France.  I remember it in vivid detail as if it were yesterday not decades ago.  There are those who actively try to forget or are even encouraged, by those who would be wise, to seek the easier path of erasing a happening, a circumstance that may have been nefarious, perhaps traumatic but I disagree.  In my opinion remembering only the good, the happy, and the felicitous would result in a life that lacked salt and pepper, sinew and bone, with only an insipid taste of what’s left, meatloaf instead of filet mignon.  How does one learn and grow except through adversity and somehow discovering the wherewithal to overcome and prosper?  Oh, the anecdote that follows is neither pivotal nor significant of itself but in time it became the object lesson to understand that even subjected to dismal circumstances pointing the finger of blame resulted in neither joy nor satisfaction.  Live fearlessly, don’t duck the unpleasant, deal with it with a stout heart and move on, that’s why good or bad, all memories should be welcomed; they are the sturdy character building blocks that nourish and fortify our personality.  While not avoiding my own contribution to what originally was painful in equal measure physical and emotional, fortunately I’ve since discovered much more to celebrate rather than to assign blame.

Lovely Nancy, Regal Reims

“I travel not to go anywhere, but to go.  I travel for travel’s sake.  The great affair it to move.” Robert Louis Stevenson – ‘Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes’.  

Leaving splendid Strasbourg and meandering westward towards lovely Nancy I came across a hilltop sight now common across Europe, modern windmill farms creating clean electricity.

(NOTE: To improve your viewing experience click on the photos below to enlarge – once for medium, twice to zoom in.)

These modern mechanical structures aren’t ugly by any means but they don’t come close to matching the nostalgic sight I came across in central Spain where several ancient windmills astride a ridge evoked Don Quixote’s menacing giants.  

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Early two or three story high windmills captured nature’s prolific (and free) winds to power man-made machinery for the general good of mankind.

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Clustered in exposed areas known for frequent winds, today’s behemoths can number several hundred with state-of-the-art design and materials, turbines are powered by blades ranging from 40 to 50 metres, and typically rise 50 to 80 metres above ground.  One such behemoth in Germany is actually 100 metres high, think of it as a 33 floor high building.

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How beneficial to wildlife is a question much debated;  renewable less polluting ‘green’ power weighed against the uncounted tens of thousand of migrating birds yearly chopped down by gigantic spinning arms.   Yet there is hope avian denizens will learn to avoid the giant turbines.  It’s a recorded fact that decades ago migrating northern European songbirds that for millennia had flown a path above Italy, on their way to North African wintering grounds, in time learned to modify their inbred path and veered off to fly above the Adriatic.  Although a perilous journey when confronted by storms with no place to find  shelter, it was nonetheless safer to avoid the deadly gauntlet above land.  Hunting had become a passionate past-time and songbirds were not spared in the least.  The carnage was such that even the birds figured it out and made the course change needed to survive, not bad thinking for ‘bird brains’, you’ll agree.  A long aside to express the hope that today’s winged creatures will figure it out too and learn to avoid the perils inherent in flying through the gauntlet of wind farms. 
As I mentioned I had the good fortune to come across these several ancient windmills astride a hillside above the town of Consuegra, a smallish but historic town some 60 kilometres north of Toledo.  The  unmistakable silhouette on the wall was an immediate reminder of hapless Don Quixote who according to Miguel de Cervantes’ account, mistaking these same  windmills for threatening giants mounted a valiant charge that met with predictably appalling results, sad to say. A direct reference to that absurd event, you’ll surely remember,  is the wise admonition to refrain from ’tilting at windmills’.
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I might also reveal here I read the book still in my teens and was utterly saddened by the story but more than that I hated each and every episode when the benighted “Knight of the Sad Countenance’ was not only defeated but humiliated over and over again.  The only reason I kept on reading was to at last discover a victory, no matter how small, just one,  but alas, not even that was to be found.  I came to hate Cervantes as a cruel writer with not a drop of the milk of human kindness to be squeezed from his implacable Spanish heart.  Yes, of course, it’s been hailed as a monumental novel of great literary significance but search me if I know why.  Then as now I didn’t see any rational for piling on when the victim was already down and out, even in fiction.   
The windmills have been restored and grace the hillside with dignity.  In the background the remnants of an ancient citadel.  

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Next time you have the opportunity to do so, spare a day  for Nancy, a lovely city on the main east-west axis from Paris to the German border with a long and illustrious history, yet  it isn’t often a foreign tourist will make a point to visit and that’s simply too bad.   The sprawling, pedestrian square ‘Place Stanislas’ has a well-earned reputation as a splendid example of ‘flamboyant architecture’ and sure enough it burnishes bright in the sunshine.  Since 1983 it has been added to UNESCO’s prestigious list of World Heritage Sites along with adjoining ‘Place de la Carrière and Place d’Alliance’. 

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The statue honours Stanislaw Leszczynski, former king of Poland; the city was a gift from his son-in-law, King Louis XV of France as a consolation prize for having lost his Polish crown.  The new Duke de Lorraine et de Bar spent the next twenty years of his life in Nancy and almost immediately embarked on a major urban renewal project and the ‘place’  became its center piece.  Place Stan as it’s called familiarly honors his memory has long been used for public assemblies, festivities and a favourite venue for meeting friends.  

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The child isn’t born who doesn’t love the up and down ride on a carousel pony: I’ll admit to being sorely tempted to join her but didn’t want to give way to my youthful impulse – maybe I should have, no, not maybe, I should have.

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Where better to enjoy a ‘quiche lorraine‘ than in the capital of Lorraine? The local beer was the perfect accompaniment.  There’s not a city or town in Europe that doesn’t offer a choice of great bistros with outdoor patios to relax and gawk at passers-by.  

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Feeling rested and energetic, I headed 250 kliks north-east towards Reims, via the autoroute a little over 2 hours drive, admittedly at slightly faster than posted speed limits.  The city of Reims for it’s part posseses a glorious past dating to Roman days, St. Joan of Arc and of course famed as the home of several distinguished ‘Maison de  Champagne’.    Notre-Dame de Reims, is classified a UNESCO World Heritage Site celebrating new architectural techniques in the 13th century coupled with the harmonious marriage of sculptural decoration with architecture.  Considered one of the masterpieces of Gothic art the former abbey still has its beautiful 9th-century nave, in which lie the remains of Archbishop St Rémi (440–533), who instituted the Holy Anointing of the kings of France.  The cathedral has withstood the desecration of rampaging mobs during the French Revolution with the  profane vandalism to statues and severe bomb damage during WWI that destroyed priceless stained glass windows.   Like the mythical Phoenix the cathedral rises anew and since my first sight as a very young lad to this day it remains my personal favourite of all buildings around the world. Lucky me, I have admired close-up the incomparable Taj Mahal in Agra, graceful Golden Temple in Kyoto, the inspired restructuring and adaptation of a splendid Moorish mosque to Christian  cathedral in Cordoba, the triumphant Piazza de Miraculo in Pisa, to name more would be superfluous – to my eyes all equal in celebrating man’s artistic genius when creating rather than destroying, and yet La Cathedral de Reims dedicated to the Virgin Mary is closest to my heart.    Obviously I’m not alone as it attracts one million visitors each year.  

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Paris Icons

“If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.”       Ernest Hemingway – ‘A Moveable Feast’                                                                        

Elsewhere I’ve posted ‘Paris – Ville Lumière‘ and the interest it garnered has resulted in a pointed prod to produce another photographic essay that concentrates on iconic images of that splendid city. If you have good walking shoes, the time and the stamina, Paris offers a plethora of grand architectural and historic buildings, around almost every corner a charming, oft unexpected site, whether a flowered garden, a statue and fountain or a mouth-watering food stall in a neighborhood street ‘marché’ that caters to the fastidious eating habits of Parisians.  I will not offend by identifying the obvious, such as the Tour Eiffel or Notre Dame, however, now and then I’ll add a dash of spices, tidbits of interesting information perhaps useful to make your future foray to ‘La ville lumière‘ more  pleasurable.  Bon voyage!

(NOTE: To improve your viewing experience click on the photos below to enlarge – once for medium, twice to zoom in.

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Astride ‘La Butte Montmartre’, fabled domain of the artistic and bohemian, the Basilique du Sacré Coeur keeps a watchful eye over its people.

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Allow me to offer a useful bit of advice to the future visitor.  The scenic photos of the Sacré Coeur  above are taken from the rooftop patio at the shopping mecca known collectively as Printemps and Les Gallery Lafayette.  There’s no entry fee and it offers the best photographic vista, 360 degree around, of what’s interesting to be seen in Paris, as in the photos.  Furthermore any woman is delighted by the eclectic and fine quality shopping and a man can easily find that gift he needs bring back home.  A winning combo by any standard.
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The Centre Pompidou (center) the foremost tourist magnet in all of Paris; when you consider what it comes ahead, Notre Dame and the Tour Eiffel, just to name two, it’s quite a compliment to its successful incorporation of several cultural venues.  The new city library and the largest museum of modern art in Europe are but two of the attractions in this ‘high-tech’  design that ‘turned modern architecture on its head’.
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Place Georges Pompidou’ in front of the museum is particularly noted for eclectic and often novel entertainment, mimes, jugglers, bands, street performers; offered for a small donation, freely given I might add, relaxed crowds gawk and applaud on any given day.
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In colorful Mongolian garb a trio set up in front of Le Centre Pompidou to offer authentic ‘throat’ singing accompanied by fine musicianship on traditional instruments.  If you’ve not heard this complex and unique form of singing go to YouTube and type in ‘Mongolian throat singing’.  You’ll find several choices – amazing control.
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This clever fellow created humongous soap balloons – imagine back to the time when you’d have given up all your precious toys for that kind of magical power. Check out the rapt expressions on the children, and the not so young.
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For a brief moment the young lady fancies her chances of capturing a bit of bubble magic – not quite as it soon burst.  During the twinkling of an eye though she was a child again and that’s  priceless.
 
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Paris is a shopper’s delight – Dior luxury goods and of course world renowned brand names in fashion.
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On the Champs Elysées, luxurious co-exists now with the mundane, such as Burger King and MacDonald’s.  No photos of those in my camera, needless to point out.
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The old elegance with the extra cool new design in automobiles.  
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Paris offers the best and most varied  entertainment one can imagine.  At almost every street corner or ‘place‘ you’ll discover  talented artists plying their trade in return for a voluntary donation on your part.  Below, this woman plays a manual organ, hand-cranked with vigor while singing with verve traditional songs associated with the incomparable Edit Piaf.
The lissome accordionist is found on the Place du Tertre a stone’s throw from the Sacré Coeur; if you want to hear a fine rendition of the  theme from ‘Emilie’ and other golden oldies, check her out.  Talented buskers at every corner and well worth lingering to give a listen and maybe drop a coin.
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A jazz band up for the week-end from the south of France served up an upbeat and fun performance in front, appropriately enough, of the Académie Nationale de Musique.
Very professional, super hip – a cool jazz band and fine vocalist entertain the lucky passers-by, me included. 
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City Hall and the ubiquitous carousel, a children’s delight seen everywhere in France.
L’Arc de Triomphe du  Carrousel’ looking from the nearby Louvre up the Champs-Elysées and the Arc de Triomphe at the top, both built to commemorate Napoleon’s victories.   The obelisk (also due to Napoleon’s military excursion to Egypt) is visible about half-way.  A splendid stroll by any standard that can be named, anywhere.
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From atop  the ‘Arc de Triomphe’ a comely visitor captures a souvenir photo looking down Les Champs Elysées; at the top end of the photo, the Louvres museum.  The Eiffel Tower shows up from almost any angle anywhere within the city.
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Photo editing magic! What is she pointing her camera at?
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The Champs-Elysées and the slightly insane traffic below.  The one thing that a driver must never do is stop for whatever reason.  I’ve even witnessed minor bumper to bumper hits but I’ve never seen even a driver  stop to check for damage – it’s part of the game.
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The crazy traffic below, drivers navigating their way to one of the 12 avenues that make up the spokes of the Etoile.  My first time I was forced to go around twice before I mustered the courage to just head for my exit and miraculously managed to do so without a scratch.  Hence, every time I’m in Paris whether I need to or not I force myeelf to drive around just to get my driving brain adapted to the helter-skelter traffic, and okay, I now consider it fun especially if I have a neophyte along for the ride so I can show off my ‘cool’.
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Note no lanes or any kind of traffic pattern indication – you just make up your own driving path as you go.  Democracy or is it anarchy?  Somehow it works.  Oh, by the way this was in mid-morning in what is considered light traffic. 
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From the top of the Arc de Triumphe – the ever present Tour Effeil and below a panoramic view of Paris.
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The Louvre and it’s iconic pyramid entrance, once an object of controversy now a proud symbol of architectural imagination melded with practicality.
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From the concourse outside a peek at ancient sculptures cleverly displayed – great if you’re in a hurry, and best of all no entrance ticket need be purchased.  
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This young couple in the ‘Jardin des Tuileries’ somehow couldn’t find enough free room on a bench; they opted to share the same space, vertically.  Nice!
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Historic, splendid, iconic Notre Dame Cathedral.   I believe it’s impossible to take a poor photo from any angle.
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Inside Notre Dame, glorious glass rose, the main transept and splendid pipe organ sights that never cease to reward my visits, no matter how often over the years. 
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One of the famed gargoyles keeping a close watch on the City of Lights!
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La Conciergerie, a historic building that includes the remnants of the oldest royal palace in Paris, dating to the beginning of the 14th Century.  Later displaced in favour of  the Louvre as the royal residence, it’s located on the historic and charming Ile de la Cité, the island in the middle of the River Seine just up from Notre Dame.  Today it houses the Prefecture de Paris police and various legal offices and trial courts.
On the Pont Neuf, a glittering bridge spanning the Seine leading to the Left Bank and in the background the Invalides, a fine military museum displaying memorabilia of past wars and especially Napoleon’s impressive tomb.
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When I checked out this photo the results were rather surprising – first of all I couldn’t quite fathom other than the Obelisk in the Place de La Concorde what were the other two buildings.  ‘Mon grand ami‘ set me straight; the second building with the columns was the ‘Palais de Bourbon’ where the French Assembly meet and in the background the Invalides.  What had thrown me was the fact the Seine River flows just in front of the Palais but it’s not visible and I wouldn’t have guessed except he lives permanently in Paris.  Lucky fellow!
In front of the imposing Pantheon where the ‘great and noble’ of France are honored in final homage.  Of great interest it’s where Foulcault set his famous instrument, a pendulum that proved the existence of the earth’s rotation – check it out it’s still doing its thing without a hick-cup.  It’s impressive and for me at least, a hint to understanding our home planet’s incredibly precise ride though the cosmos.
The Palais du Luxembourg is the seat of the French Senate.  However, it is best know for  a 25-hectare formal garden populated by statues, ‘parterres’ of green lawns and stately treed aisles for leisure strolls.  There are large basins of water where children (of all ages) sail model sailboats; there’s also an apple and pear orchard and an excellent ‘théatre des marionettes’.  For those with a nostalgic bent (mea culpa) I recommend finding a Joe Dassin rendition of a splendid “Le Jardin du Luxembourg‘ and if you’re like me listen and allow yourself a heartfelt sigh.  He was the much loved troubadour of an entire generation of the young and the young at heart.  RIP Joe.
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Methinks I’ll now listen to Joe reminding me of a time when life was simpler and notions of friendship and love weren’t looked upon as the domain of romantic, emotional fools.   That’s it for now mes amis.  Next time I’ll take you along to lovely Nancy and regal Reims.   A bientôt

‘Le Football’ By John-Michael Papirchuk

The value of my life, I always claim, depends on the memories accumulated to this very moment, as I breathe and write these words.   Someone perhaps wiser will tell you to forget the past and live in the present, and I’ll not argue, if you happen to be young, really young.  ‘Le Football’ is a personal story that reminds me of a pivotal time in my life, the early years in Canada and how poignantly the lesson was forcibly learned that not a single soul ought ever  be uprooted from place of birth, no matter what, not for political reasons (even if compelling at the time) and most certainly not for economic considerations.  Indeed one can grow a reasonable facsimile of a banana tree in an indoor pot and even produce fruit, but they’ll be puny and lackluster in taste in comparison to the tropical tree. Parents have a moral obligation to nurture and raise their children on their own native soil, period.   A harsh judgment but one I stand by.

‘Le Football’ by Jean-Michel Papirchuk

La Kermesse à Ay-Champagne

La Kermesse à Ay-Champagne

Cloud Catcher

CLOUD  CATCHER

Recently I was rummaging through stacks of long forgotten bits of prose, poems and notes to myself, fodder for future stories.  Some material puzzled me; one in particular entitled Pica Luna.  Just a few terse hand-written lines to describe a young, brave, female Antarctic penguin and what event she was central in its happening.  I became all excited remembering what I considered a great idea with a pulsating plot and exciting dénouement.  Trouble soon reared its ugly head – for the life of me I couldn’t remember exactly what it was all about, no matter how hard I prodded my brain.  Damn, why didn’t I set down more copious notes? When I first had the idea it was so vividly clear I imagined a few lines would be sufficient to awaken my memory when time came to set it all down.  Unfortunately one thing led to another, two or three trips abroad, a markedly changed set of life circumstances and a dozen years later it resurfaces as an idea without flesh and blood, much like a ghostly appearance without earthly essence.  Never again will I be so prodigal with a good story in its early stages; henceforth I’d nurture the seed to harvest the good fruit.

Similarly I discovered an essay written by one of my former students.  Attractive and bright, she had a pronounced artistic bend and ultra-sensitivity that was almost palpable.  I was totally taken in by her tale, enraptured is not too strong a word and it became the genesis for one of my own ‘fairy tales’ that I would entitle ‘Little Lost Cloud’.  (Dear reader, you can find it elsewhere in this blog, under the general heading of Fables from the Moonlight Garden)

Once again reading her story over reawakened the enchantment and powerful emotions I’d felt the first time around.  With a very few judicious edits I offer it very much as it was offered to me.  Nami, it’s my way to express my gratitude for a short and sweet but memorable episode in my life.

Clouds – ‘God’s Breath’

If you know anything about me you’ll know I was born in the scenic Champagne area of France, more particularly in a small town appropriately named Ay-Champagne.   Elsewhere I’ve detailed the  wonderful youthful memories  I cling to and hold close to my heart so that when I had recently decided to post a new photographic essay based on my favourite ‘cloud’ photos, an ancient memory resurfaced and I’ll confess it ran shivers down my spine.  I had decided on a title: Clouds – ‘Heavenly Drifters’ and was quite satisfied as I lifted it from a poem I’d  penned long, long ago.  And yet, late at night, unable to sleep, I was musing about which photos I might use when of a sudden my father’s clear and distinct voice whispered , “God’s breath.”  I sat up straight.  Yes, of course, how could I have forgotten?

In a small, agricultural community it’s a common occurrence to see children visit their fathers working in the fields, or in our case in the hilly vineyards that provided the backdrop (and prosperity) to our town.   Often after school, if I wasn’t kicking a football (soccer for you American readers) around, I might take it in my head to go see what my father was up to and if perhaps he’d found something of interest for me. Indeed, numerous times during a break from back-breakingt toil he’d taken the trouble to forage for fruit in season, cherries, pears, wild plums, even the elusive quince after the first frost.  Very occasionally there might be a couple of delicious Chardonnay grapes but only if they were what we called ‘fumée’ that is the skin took on a smoky hue and you’d be lucky to find three such grapes in an entire vineyard.  Failing that he’d always kept a little bit of his lunch carefully wrapped in his knapsack.  I’d rummage through wondering what I might discover then  I’d eagerly wolf down that tidbit as if it came from a royal table.  Once he’d brought home  four orphan leverets,  another time it was a duckling with broken wing and numerous birds in particular a splendid, much  loved magpie.  (Elsewhere in this blog you might read ‘Mack the Magpie’.)

(NOTE: To improve your viewing experience click on the photos below to enlarge – once for medium, twice to zoom in.)

What today I consider a wonderful ‘tournure de phrase’ came about in the following manner.  As long as I could remember every night for a few minutes I’d lay down next to my father who always went to bed soon after the evening meal and after having listened to the latest news on the radio.  He regularly got up at five a.m. a not unusual  hour for anyone who works in the vineyards or for that matter elsewhere in the outdoors.  I’d get cozy under his arm, quietly lay there and wait for him to tell me a story.  He was a consummate story teller, using different voices and either recounting events from his own youth (in Galicia, then a part of Poland), some true to life others wildly imaginary or inventing a new, fanciful tale just for me.   Sometimes when he was out of ideas and that was unusual he’d say, “Today I’m a bit tired.  So you tell me about your day, how was school? Did you have fun with your friends?”  And I’d eagerly try to emulate him, trying to entertain him for a change.

One day when I’d dashed, skipped and hopped my way up to the vineyard where I knew my father would be found, a strange cloud formation drifted into view rising above the green forest that protected from harsh northerly winds the precious ‘vignoble d’Ay’.   They were smallish, round, white clouds drifting into view in what seemed a perfectly aligned row.  Ten or twelve and then nothing but blue sky.  “Oh, look Papa, look at these funny clouds, they look like smoke puffs from the train locomotive.”   Dad adjusted the beret on his head, looked up, squinted for a moment seemingly weighing his answer, then he set me straight, “No son, that’s God’s breath.”  Well, that was new to me and just a tad dubious I enquired, “How do you know that?”

He took the time to hug me first and then explained.  “You see, it’s quite obvious God was out for a jog and now He’s puffing and that’s the result.  These clouds are a result of His breath.”  Dad offered a mischievous smile, “Hmmm… He must be a bit out of shape to huff and puff like that.”

Needless to say I took it for God’s truth, after all this information came from my personal God and I was perhaps not more than five years old, a time when the word of an adult, a parent no less, was unquestioned.

As the days and years passed by even when I’d grown old enough and learned at school about the different types of cloud formations and what one might expect in the way of weather for the next few hours, I’d still ask my father how God might be feeling that particular day.  On a day when we were just about caught by a violent rainstorm we were hurrying down the hillsides trying to beat the impeding drenching home.  “What’s God up to?”  I called out as we were jogging down.

“Oh boy, somebody’s going to catch hell.  He’s really miffed at somebody or at something.  I wouldn’t want to be anywhere near Him right now.”  As a punctuation, just then a fiery bolt of lighting streaked across the sky and a thunder clap that seemed so close I gave out with a puppy yelp.  Dad squeezed my hand hard but now I suppose it was to put my mind off the ominous rumblings of more to come that he actually stopped and cupping my chin in his hand earnestly asked.  “Say, have you been a good boy lately? He’s not mad at you, is He?”

Oh, no, did that have to do with me filching a few apricots on my way up?  Acting like an innocent lamb I answered as forthrightly as I knew how, “Ah, non, Papa, I’ve been good and you know I serve the six o’clock mass every morning without fail and always on time.”

“Whew! That’s a relief as that last bit of fireworks had me a little worried.  Too close for my liking.  Let’s get home to your mother or she’ll be sick with worry, you know her.”

Allow me an aside here, for your information Dad didn’t approve of my early morning dedication to serving as an altar boy but here’s  the proof positive that no one is more Catholic than a Polish mother – my own mother thought it wonderful that her darling might actually sprout angel’s wings.  In all other aspects she was more fiercely protective than a mother hen but when it came to serving God, nothing was off limits including me getting up at the crack of dawn since I was apparently of all the boys I knew the only one willing to do so.  And that too proves there’s no such thing as an ‘unwilling’ victim.

Mind you in my day at St. Brice parish altar boys were paid for serving at mass.  There was a going rate for a low mass, high mass was more remunerative so were weddings  and the most sought out gig was a christening, on top of a generous tip by proud parents, and not to be outdone in generosity the God-mother and God-father added to the bonanza. and that wasn’t all,  there were scads of delicious sugar-coated almonds stuffed in cornets of pink if it was a girl or blue for a boy.  Once I hit the absolute jackpot of all times by serving seven consecutive christenings on the same day.  I was seven years old then and lorded it over my school pals by dolling out ‘dragées‘ for the next couple of weeks.  A maharajah couldn’t have been more regal or blasé about his munificence.  Rampant popularity waned and petered out as the supply ran dry.  An early lesson in the old ‘what have you done for me lately?’

Incidentally, funerals were the most miserable of all to serve, muted sobs, the occasional bone-chilling wail, then with a heavy cross held aloft leading a dreary long procession to the cemetery a good kilometre away.  The gloomy affair paid not much more than for a morning mass and the bereaved were almost always too overwrought to remember to tip the altar boy, the sacristan and bell ringer. Oy!

Of course I eventually learned that Nimbus were at times an awesome treat promising displays of pyrotechnics in lighting bolts and cacophonous thunder claps sure to scare the ‘beejees’ out of my mother (much to my delight).  There were the lofty, thin as a gossamer veil Cirrus clouds that Dad would delightedly ascribe to, “God is having a pleasant nap.   See He’s breathing nice and calm as can be.”

My father was as close to nature as a man could ever be; it was a quasi-religious devotion for he loved every moment spent outdoors, observing and doing his bit to ‘assist Mother Nature in her life giving work’.  No one to my knowledge could eke out more veggies and fruit trees from a backyard garden.  When he had a couple of acre garden on his sister’s farm the variety of tomatoes alone prompted my uncle to invite other farmers to see what he’d grown. He’s now up there among the clouds and speculating how God might be feeling on a particular day.

And so, since ever I can remember and ‘remembrance’ is now wearing the mantle of a  longish, epic journey, I was fascinated by clouds.  “Boy, get your head out of the clouds,” was an admonishment I heard often enough much to my annoyance.  However, it’s true even as a young lad I disliked boring. clear blue days, but enjoyed the passing clouds and always looking up imagine what a particular cloud might be the mirror image of that which it overflew.  Oh, this one has the odd shape of England and that one a perfect copy of the Italian boot – by Jove! It’s aiming a swift kick at England, the cheeky beggars.

Of course some cloud types were much better for such speculation, for example Strato Cumulus were more artistically inclined than the lofty, airy Cirrus;  I was so infatuated with clouds I even penned a couple of poems.  Since poetry is the ultimate in subjective writing I wouldn’t hazard a guess as to their quality and thus they may perhaps best remain in the realm of ‘anonymous’.   Not so long ago I wrote a pseudo fairy tale entitled ‘Little Lost Cloud’.  You can find it elsewhere on this blog.

Over the years I have collected photos of my favourite cloud formations as I traveled here, there and elsewhere.  Allow me to share my affection for our heavenly companions.  The photographs I offer span several decades and in the skies above different countries.  When I remember the exact location I’ll indicate otherwise it will be an approximation.  In a poem I describe clouds as ‘heavenly drifters, rootless and country-less’ and it shouldn’t really matter where they were captured for a brief moment.  Oh, by the way, isn’t that where our personal Guardian Angel rests after a hard day’s work?

On my way to Paris, clouds that I imagined were hugging close for warmth, somewhere above the  North Atlantic Ocean.

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I like this photo for the clouds and the weathered  stone tile roof, near Bû, an oddly named  small town in France.

What would otherwise be a mundane photo of a chateau’s manicured lawn takes on a dramatic overtone provided by dark,  threatening cloud.

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In the same neighborhood – the background makes one forget  the ‘frontman’.

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Three photos taken in Italy.  Now you know why the colour ‘sienna’ is named after the terra cotta tiles in evidence as far as the eye can see in the city of, you guessed it, Sienna.  The venerable Ponte Veccio in Florence as well the unmistakeable Leaning Tower of Pisa.   A leisurely tour of  Tuscany should figure prominently on your list of must-do and see if you’ve not yet done so.  It’s a joyful adventure in scenery, culture, food and wine.  Bravo, bravissimo!

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In the Piedmont on my way back to France via the Valle d’Aosta.   I pulled over and got out of the car when I saw this memorable cloud formation – the wind blew to my ears the sound of bells from the distant flock, a memorable moment. 

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Idyllic Holland, where else?

Somewhere in Belgium, on my way to Ghent, if I’m not mistaken.  It occurs to me I should take notes when it’s not an obvious well-known site.  Next time. 

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Paris – naturellement.  The cloud backdrop is perfectly suited to the statue.

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In Corsica.  Can’t see the clouds? Must be above as it’s still drizzling on the bucolic lane leading the flock home.  No technicalities, please, I just really like the photo a lot.

From my window – Lost Lagoon in Vancouver’s Stanley Park.

English Bay, Vancouver.

North Vancouver across Burrard Inlet seen from Stanley Park’s seawall.

Somewhere in  beautiful France.

In Bavaria on my way to lovely Fussen and  fabled Neusweinstein Castle
 

The splendid castle built by the ‘inspired’ Ludwig II, a much more appropriate tag than the snotty ‘mad’ all too often attached to his name.  The French poet Paul Verlaine called him the “only true king of this century” . The shy dreamer bequeathed this airy fairy tale edifice for generations of visitors flocking from all corners of the world and via Walt Disney’s whimsical rendition to millions others.

Sublime, spectacular, splendid Mont Saint Michel, in Normandy

Wild flowers, mostly poppies of different colours were growing in profusion in a Bretagne field.

Above Dinard and the ‘Promenade au Clair de Lune’ –  below the Flemish style roof of Beaune Hospice (first hospital in Europe) and Chateau Chambord final residence for exiled Leonardo da Vinci

Two of my all-time favourite pics captured on the park grounds of Chambord.

A palette worthy of Renoir colours the Kootenay Rockies in British Columbia – photos taken five kilometres from Montana border.

And there she is, My Little Lost Cloud.  Alive and doing well somewhere above  your head.

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Copyright@Vancouver, October 27, 2012 John-Michael Papirchuk

 

Strasbourg

MAGNIFICENT, SPLENDID, UNIQUE, UNFORGETTABLE  STRASBOURG!

Strasbourg! One of my very favourite destinations any time in Europe.   Magnificent, prosperous Strasbourg, historically craved over  is located  at the far eastern reaches of France with Germany sitting across the mighty Rhine strategically astride a pathway for invading armies since recorded time.  The Strabourgois are hard-working, clever and adaptable to the vagaries of historic situations including decades under German rule.  In fact, the local dialect is very much a blend of German and is still often spoken by the older generation among themselves.  Strasbourg’s solid infrastructure and strategic location, a hub of transportation to and from the eastern countries of Europe,  has made it a logical choice to become the future capital of a united Europe, and it is already the seat of many international pan-European organizations.  Strasbourg’s future is as rosy as the superb stained glass rose (above) gracing their much beloved cathedral.

Construction on Our Lady of Strasbourg started in 1176 and continued for the next three centuries. The  magnificent Gothic cathedral boasts of the tallest spire in all of Europe,  in fact from 1647 to 1874 it was the tallest man-made structure in the world.

(NOTE: To improve your viewing experience click on the photos below to enlarge – once for medium, twice to zoom in.)

The cathedral described by Victor Hugo as “A gigantic and delicate marvel” is at the core of the pride of the Alsacian people.  Twin towers were planned but unfortunately the second spire was never started.  In moments of idle dreaming I have wondered why couldn’t it be constructed now? There are more than enough billionaires on this planet with more than enough loose change to gather together a ‘dream team’ of historians, architects, stone masons, artisans, sculptors, creators of stained glass windows and all of the educated ‘hands’ required to create a splendid monument to glorify the past and bring hope to the present.  I wonder why there isn’t a single one out there with the imagination to donate such a gift to the world? Forlorn hope, in a world where making and piling up  money is single-mindedly pursued such an inspired, noble mind doesn’t draw breath.  A sublime imagination or a philanthropic love of culture is a non-starter.  Quel domage – too bad!

Just imagine the second tower to celebrate the new millenia (a decade or so already down the road but still early in relative terms) when mankind starts to finally get it!  What’s ‘it’ you may rightfully wonder – ‘it’ in this case is respect of what’s best in mankind’s cultural and artistic creativity accompanied by human nobility of spirit.

A medieval building, an iconic landmark in great repair, a stone’s throw from the cathedral, also a good eatery where to sample the regional ‘choucroute garni’.  Not making a point of sitting down to a copious plate of this traditional sauerkraut and pork sausages and/or ribs, washed down with excellent Alsatian beer is unthinkable.  

When I was a child I’d been told about the ‘cigogne‘ (stork) that ferried new-born babies to their new homes; I’d even seen lots of illustrations so it had to be true, right? Imagine my excitement the first time I saw a couple of real honest to goodness ‘cigognes’ in a lush meadow spearing frogs for breakfast (no bad jokes, please) just a few kilometres from Strasbourg.  I spotted them from the corner of my eye and by the time I was able to make a u-turn a couple kliks down the road to take photos much to my chagrin they’d flown off.  Welcomed as harbingers of good fortune, the magnificent bird had traditionally nested atop chimneys throughout Alsace but they’d almost disappeared until dedicated hard work and loving care rescued them from the edge of extinction.  From a choice perch on the cathedral, here for centuries one is seen  dispensing good luck to  its citizenry.

It’s easy to get around Strasbourg as it’s an eminently walkable city but if you’re feeling lazy a modern transportation system will whisk you to destination.  Notice the bicycle paths along side the tram tracks.

Arriving in Strasbourg I was following the signs indicating the cathedral, thus the old town and as usual I had no idea where to spend the night.  Judging I was getting close I grabbed the first available parking spot and as luck would have it, the car stayed put for the next three days.  Better still a few steps away I notice a hotel and before you know it I’d also found fine lodgings at a reasonable price, a good view from the window and within walking distance of ‘La Petite France’ and the cathedral.  I’ll admit to almost never (except when traveling for working purposes) book accommodations ahead of time when I’m on the road.  Why is that? I trust on my good star to lead me to a great place within my budget and with some special amenity or perhaps great location to offer.  On occasion I’ve had to work hard to find just what would smile at me, but I have no problem checking out four, five or even more hotels before making a decision.  I also have no embarrassment about returning to one I passed on earlier.  I deem finding the right place is worth almost any effort, furthermore if I really am happy I can stay longer and that’s a bonus.  Okay, I’ll tell you there have been times when I couldn’t find anything at any price because there was a convention going on or some popular event and I’ve even had to move on to another town, but that’s not happened too often and in fact sometimes worked out even better by exploring an unplanned destination.

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This method of finding a bed to lay your head on is not recommended for those who like to travel on a fixed schedule and agenda but that’s not for me as I have at times (often) found myself not only in a different town but also in a different country.  Oh, it’s not a big deal if you’re free and have the fanciful notion of going where the wind (figuratively) blows you and Europe is the place to do such for the distances are rather smallish if you come from Canada.  One particular time (I was younger and I love driving) I left San Marino early when the sun was peering over the horizon, drove through northern Italy, across a slice of Switzerland, through a bit of Germany, dashed through northwest France, sped across Luxembourg and found myself watching a great game of football (soccer) at my hotel’s lobby with friendly companions in Knokke in Belgium.  Let’s see that’s seven countries in one day, not bad!

The view from my bedroom, notice the cathedral’s spire about a pleasant 15 minute’s walk with interesting buildings and sights on the way.

A rather banal pic but notice the bidet, a fixture found in any half-decent hotel in Europe.  Have North America’s hoteliers heard of its convenient hygienic properties? I was introduced to the ‘bidet’ in an hilarious episode in Henry Miller’s ‘Tropic of Cancer’.  Already living in Canada I had to wait for my first trip to France to actually discover it in a modest one star hotel in Paris.  I was thrilled and sat there laughing my head off remembering the discomfiture of the man who mistook it for a proper toilet and found out it simply wouldn’t flush as he’d expected.  The entire novel is worth reading for that alone although it was the book that made me realize an extensive vocabulary as well as being an indispensable communication tool is a thing of beauty.

Another view from the hotel room – lucky me.

At night it was so beautifully illuminated as most architecturally important and striking buildings are throughout Europe.

To the right of my wide open window the view was also splendidly illuminated – a dream land that charmed my eyes while awaiting slumber after a long, happy day.

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One of the best activities a visitor can indulge in is to savour a fine Alsatian beer in one of the many outdoor cafes in  ‘La Petite France’, a beautiful slice of historic Strasbourg.  In the evening there are dozens of fine restaurants from which to choose, wisely I opted for one that featured sauerkraut, roast potatoes and smoked sausages nicely eased  down with a stein (maybe two) of  cold local blonde beer.

Strasbourg’s historic city centre, the ‘Grande Isle’ was classified a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1988, the first time such an honour was placed on an entire city centre. Strasbourg is fused into the Franco-German culture and although violently disputed throughout history, has been a bridge of unity between France and Germany for centuries, especially through the ‘Université de Strasbourg‘ presently the largest in France, and the peaceful coexistence of Catholic and Protestant culture.

A boatman speeds home after a day ferrying tourists around the delightful waterways that crisscross the city.  It was time for me to reluctantly leave behind enchanting Strasbourg.  Until we meet again, aurevoir!

Beaune and Dijon

A newly-opened stretch of ‘auto-route‘ leading towards Beaune, the famed Burgundy wine town, early in the morning and yes, I tested the Renault’s ability to move along and that it did – and before you tsk-tsk as soon as it hit the 200 kph (120 mph) I immediately eased up on the accelerator.
(NOTE: To improve your viewing experience click on the photos below to enlarge – once for medium, twice to zoom in.)
The anticipation of fine wine tasting and excellent cuisine spurred me on – couldn’t get there fast enough.  Yeah, the devil made me do it!
Autoroutes’ are ‘péage‘, it costs but if you are in a hurry it pays off in saved time and in less fuel spent. ‘Départment’ is the French equivalent of a province or American state, of course nothing close to the same size territory but often with a larger population.  Generally, when possible I look for the D signs indicating a regional road to travel from town to town and I’m never disappointed as you wander through the ancient ways and byways of what the  French refer to as ‘La France Profonde‘, or alternatively ‘Douce France‘.  Indeed the finest of what this superlatively endowed country offers is often in small, out of the way towns and villages.  Getting there is half the fun too.

Somewhere on the way from Blois, one of the well-preserved fortified chateaus that dot the French country side – I don’t even know its name.

Vineyards here, there and everywhere –  there’s something soothing in the  orderly, symmetrical  rows going up a gentle slope framed by a wooded backdrop.  I always find reassurance in such scenery; must have  to do with my familiarity with such panorama from my childhood years in Ay-Champagne.

Beaune is the capital of the justly celebrated ‘Vin de Bourgogne‘ and of course the culinary world dotes on  heavenly Dijon mustard.   Both of  these towns boast of a unique, rich and varied cultural heritage that should make a visit a must on any serious traveler’s agenda.  Beaune is south of Dijon, a little over 30 kilometres and going to or from  it winds its way along the famous ‘Route de Grand Crus’.  Remnants from medieval times are abundant and walking the streets a pleasant dip in the limpid pool  of days past.

Medieval city gate ‘Porte Saint Nicolas’ in Beaune is one of the many monuments and buildings the city preserves with care and pride.

Burgundy domaine names that are sure to pass any wine ‘connaisseurs’ lips, figuratively and literally with blissful pleasure and anticipation.
Beaune features a plethora of reputed wine merchants where one can taste the wines ‘gratis‘ before making a decision on which of the fine ‘cru‘ to buy – warning, some of the prices do require a sober judgment but the quality of course is ‘impeccable!‘ It’s a sensual pleasure every one should indulge in no matter how much it pinches your wallet.  You only live once and surely you’d not pass up a slab of bbq pork ribs in Chattanooga, would you? Or turn down a beer in Pilsen, right? When in Rome do as the Romans, eat a good plate of pasta.
A  welcoming parochial church I passed by each day on my way to the ‘centre ville’.  The affluent city of Beaune I’ve visited on occasion before but it never fails to surprise and delight in new ways.
A medieval treasure is the Hospices de Beaune, also known as ‘Hôtel-Dieu’.  Built for the poor and sick at the end of the Hundred Years War in 1443 by Nicolas Rolin and his wife.  It features and instantly recognizable geometric glazed-tiled roof of interwoven red, green, brown and yellow tiles.  The generosity of the benefactors was emulated by other wealthy and powerful families in the region, notably Pommard, Nolay, Meursault so that collectively they have become known as the ‘Hospices de Beaune’.    It’s one of the finest example of 15th Century French architecture, this particular building referred to as an emblematic example of Flamboyant Gothic  – the facades facing the  main courtyard are eye-catching and unique.
Huh…  I  have to come up with a different pose – you think?  
A view of the main ward – would you believe it was in use until very recently when the last patients were transferred to a modern facility although still in use as a retirement home.  Indeed, it has presently been  transformed into a splendid museum endowed with some 5000 objet d’art and artistic treasures.
Undoubtedly the clean and comfortable convalescence  nooks where undreamed of luxury for the sick and downtrodden of ancient days.  The aptly named Sisters of Mercy must have appeared as Angels of Mercy, and surely they were heaven sent for the grateful patients.
At one end of the main ward an altar and chapel richly adorned with many artistic treasures among them a famous altar piece ‘The Last Judgment’ by Flemish artist Rogier van der Weyden.
Each year since 1851, in November, a charity auction of wine kicks off a three day festival devoted to the food and wines of Burgundy.  The Domaine des Hospices de Beaune is a non-profit organization which owns 150 acres of donated vineyards, in Côte de Beaune, Côtes de Nuits and Pouilly-Fuissé, need I point out much of it classified Grand and Premier Cru.  The proceeds go to its charitable work in keeping with its long tradition of caring for the poor and sick.  Since 1905 the auction has been organized by famed Christie’s and it entices international bids from professional and private buyers.
The central fountain in Le vieux Dijon provides a meeting place for old and young alike – ancient buildings well preserved serve as a scenery backdrop and of course notice the ubiquitous carousel just behind .   Although Dijon is a fine city with an illustrious past it somehow slips below the radar of travelers to France (even the French somehow by-pass it);  go for it and I promise it will beguile the most jaded tourist.
A quick 30 minutes north from Beaune  you’ll come to Dijon, an ancient medieval city reputed as a focal point of French gastronomy (be sure to feast on coq au vin and sip on a delicious crème de cassis liqueur) as well as a lively university town thriving with world class art museums such as the Musée des Beaux-Arts.  Fortunately unlike the majority of large towns in the northern mid half of France it escaped major destruction in World War II, lucky for us who have the good ‘nose’ to find it on our journey.
Eglise Saint Michel in the background and another one, nameless I’m ashamed to admit, in the foreground.  There are churches around every corner in this town and as I was struck by the far one I neglected the nearest – mea culpa!
Eglise Saint Michel, an eye-catching and unusual architecture for this part of France.
Beautiful stain glass windows adorn the main facade as seen from the interior.  I hold the belief the  creation of stained glass art is taken too much for granted and not appreciated to its full value.  Perhaps it’s the distance between object and viewer that is the cause, not often can we stand as close as to a painting in a gallery.  Other than Marc Chagall, I know of no other artist of note that is celebrated for their stained glass work.  Am I wrong? 
After Mt. St. Michel I meet the victorious archangel again in Dijon pitchforking the loser out of heaven and into the abyss of darkness.
Hey, I do have another pose – must remember it. Liberation Square fronting the Palace of the Dukes of Burgundy in Dijon is spacious and a favourite meeting place.
City Hall part of the complex Ducal palace where important matters are dealt with – example, getting hitched!
Getting married in Dijon is serious business – first you must pass identification procedures.  Perhaps giving the couple one last chance to change their minds?
Let joy reign supreme for now – notice the two walking away couldn’t care less.
And of course, THE world’s best mustard and where it all originated, right there, in that very same shop.  Before entering I felt almost as pious as going on pilgrimage to Lourdes.  Dijon mustard is near must on my dinner table, anytime, well maybe not for seafood.  
Oy, that pose, again!  I really have to stop that from becoming a habit. Sure, sure!
The array of different flavored mustards would take a year to taste each and every one on a daily basis.  Yet, for the  pleasure of my taste buds nothing beats the ‘Dijon Originale’.  I use it as a condiment but often as the base for savoury sauces; generously dabbed on sautéed chunks of pork tenderloin or cheaper cuts of beef it will wring out flavour beyond your expectations.  Incidentally, don’t let on this gastronomy secret to your dinner guests, it’s ours to know and keep.
Dijon is a hub for cultural events celebrating a glorious tradition in arts and of course its illustrious viniculture.  Ducal banners from different ‘houses’ are a reminder of the pomp and glamour associated with the wealthy proprietors of world-famed vineyards and superb wines.
Notice there is no traffic on the street – how I wish we could emulate here in Vancouver this civilized concept where pedestrian traffic is favoured over noisy, polluting cars.  The banners are a reminder of past glories and present-day respect for its regional history.  That’s it for this short visit to Beaune and Dijon, more coming your way but as the song said – don’t know when, don’t know where but we’ll meet again, count on it.

Chateau II – “What a Man!”

What follows is a factual story recounted for your amusement as long as you solemnly make a promise (between you, me and our personal deity) to  read it without judgement or worse a raised-eyebrow cynical appraisal of my action.  If you can’t in the depth of  your heart do so, please close this post and move on.  The ‘dramatic’ event happened two decades ago, at the gloriously beautiful Château de Chenonceau.

(NOTE: To improve your viewing experience click on the photos below to enlarge – once for medium, twice to zoom in.)

This true anecdote may tickle your funny bone, or you may scratch your head and wonder about why a grown man would behave in such a manner.  Several years ago I and my traveling companion Hélène left the lovely town of Blois early for a quick start to what was planned as another stage in our private Tour de France.   It was exactly on the 19th of April, so she tells me; the sky was a radiant blue however unseasonably cool with a blustery wind adding a stinging bite to near frigid conditions.  The parking lot was some distance from the chateau and as we were walking my lovely friend who had donned a thin, spring jacket visibly displayed ed signs of discomfort by hugging herself and shivering.

Ever the gentleman I rescued her by offering my Coq Sportif ski jacket that I had been wise enough to choose for the day.  Well, we come up to the chateau and just as we are about to cross the bridge leading to the entrance, I suggest that I’d take a photo of her.  I turn to take a few steps back and almost immediately hear a heartfelt, “Oh, no!”  I wheeled around and she was  peering over the stone parapet into the moat some twenty feet below.  Looking down I see my jacket sedately floating down towards the Cher River not far off to the left.

(Twenty years later back to survey the scene – almost nothing changed except for definitely changed hair colour, damn!)

How did that happen? Always fastidious about her appearance (also a tad vain as are most attractive women), Hélène didn’t want to be wearing an over-sized jacket, removed it and set it some distance away atop the parapet.  As luck would have it a sudden blast from a particularly petulant Zephyr blew it off to the waterway below.

Now what? As you can see from the photo, across the moat stairs lead down to the water’s edge.  That turned out crucial to the rescue operation I soon devised.

A rowboat was tethered to the wall a little farther but obviously under lock and key – no joy there.  Without a clue as to what exactly I might do,  I ran down to the steps and that being as far as I could go I necessarily had to make what one might refer to as an ‘executive decision’.  Did I have a clue?  Would I really?

First I put my hand in the water and it was as I feared – ice cold!  No matter, I made a mental calculation that if I felt anything really amiss, such as an incoming heart attack, I’d turn back.  Without further consideration lest I chickened out, I stripped down to my bikini briefs and gingerly so I wouldn’t get my hair wet slipped into the water; now with a stately breaststroke I set off on the rescue mission.  All the while I’m watching my jacket gently sailing down towards the swift flowing river but thankfully an air bubble kept  it afloat.  I’d absolutely not have wanted to dive in after it.  Finally, I caught up to it (perhaps a distance of some 20 metres) and turning around I started back half tossing forward, half pushing it in front of me.  Oh, I forgot to mention that after the initial few strokes my briefs had slipped down to my knees and I had no choice but to removed them and toss them back to where the rest of my clothes were piled up.

Remember we had been the very first car in the parking lot and in the heat of the action I’d not noticed newcomers had arrived on the scene – in fact it turned out to be three busloads of Japanese tourists.  They were now lined up on that same little bridge surely wondering about strange ‘gaijin‘ behaviour – perhaps a Spring Rites ritual?  I didn’t yet notice them but as I swam up to the steps Hélène was now waiting for me but so was a young blond woman who had shown up as well..  Sheesh, I’m stark naked, think I.  Well no matter, I’ll scramble up to the ledge backwards so she doesn’t get shocked by the ‘Full Monty’ but when I turn around there are about one hundred cameras aimed at me.  I decide one is better than a hundred fold and make my way out of the water offering a backside view to the 100 cameras.  (I vaguely hear a spattering of applause and even one cheeky wolf-whistle proving contrary to some opinions that the Japanese do have a sense of humor.) What a lovely young woman she turned out to be!  It took me a half-second to realize when she stepped forward she was holding a large, dry towel to wrap around my shoulders.  It turned out she was a backpacker from Switzerland and correctly surmised I’d need something to dry myself, especially in that temperature.

Apparently only mildly concerned, my navigator/companion was asking how I felt and just about then my entire body, from the top of my head to the tip of my toes started to tingle, something akin to a million bees swarming all over me.  I said, “I feel fine except I’m wondering what is going on with my skin?”  In the meantime she and my good Samaritan were rubbing me down and in about 30 seconds as quickly as that strange sensation had come the tingling ceased.  I had by then put on my dry jeans and shirt and it wasn’t until some years later that I  learned that what I’d experienced was the onset of hypothermia.  After profusely thanking my benefactress we started back up when two uniformed guards from the castle rushed over and invited us to go inside the castle where a rip-roaring fire was  burning in the main chimney.  “Venez vite, il y a un grand feu dans la cheminée pour vous réchaufer.”

Non; merci beaucoup!” I managed to utter with all the dignity I could muster, “In Canada where I come from we prefer cool water to swim in.”  No kidding, that’s the best I could come up with but I wasn’t about to go in and face all those tourists who’d surely snap more photos.  As well, how can you explain that you went in to retrieve a mere sports jacket?

Holding my head high, arm in arm, we marched off in quick-step unison.   Coming to the car I automatically  reached for the keys and that’s when I immediately realized that my imprudent bravado had an unsuspected reward, in fact a felicitous outcome of no small measure.  “Here,” I disingenuously claimed, “here’s why it was imperative for me to rescue the jacket.”  I held out the contents of the right side pocket – the car keys, my wallet with all my IDs, driver’s license and almost $1000 in French money when it meant a good week of traveling expenses.  The day before I’d cashed in a Traveler’s Cheque for that amount.  The bills were just a little wet around the edges but otherwise all was in good shape.  My jacket has zippers on the side pockets and without consciously thinking about it I had closed it almost totally; what marvelous design.  Notice I said, ‘has’ as I still have it but only occasionally wear it so as to prolong its useful life.  Quickly I swallowed a couple of  2-22 pills (strong Canadian aspirin) and would you believe it I escaped the watery incident without so much as a sneeze.

Feeling no pain in the warm car and so it appeared nothing more than a casual afterthought I later asked if she’d had any concerns seeing me in a situation, “Fraught with danger!” I was definitely exaggerating yet wanted her to feel a little guilt for my enforced swim, but only a tad.  Cleverly nimble, Hélène neatly deflected the implied guilt by claiming to have thought while taking this photo, “What a man!” And that she’d genuinely felt a very warm feeling for me for being so bold as to jump in to repair her unfortunate mishap. My ego satisfied I merely nodded in agreement.

For better or worse one constant in my life has been a sense of loyalty, not just to people but to things as well, for example I drive my cars until they are done, kaput, period.  This jacket traveled around the world with me; it’s a stylish black, easy to fold, light yet keeps me warm on all but the coldest days.  In other words I feel a great deal of affection for it and of course having saved the beginning of our European wanderings means I owe it my loyalty.  The day it no longer is wearable it will be honorably retired but remain in my clothe closet as a reminder of when I was young and foolish, oh all right, not that young but still full of vim, vitality and just a tad of welcome impetuosity intact.

Almost twenty years later, my splendid Coq Sportif yet keeps me snug and warm,  This pic was taken last year in Stanley Park following a rare Vancouver snowfall.

Now you are privy to this rather odd anecdote, one that until now only a handful of people had heard about and even they weren’t in on the whole truth.  I always made it a point to underline that I needed to retrieve the keys and my wallet.  The unvarnished truth is I went in for my jacket and nothing else as I’d never thought, not for one second, about the vital contents of that one pocket.  Loyalty, in whatever form it is expressed can only be rewarded, do you not agree?  And come to think of it and please don’t think it a dark thought, rather a happy one – when I’m laid out for the final journey, no ill-fitting suit please, but  let me be decked out in my lovely Coq Sportif jacket, I’ll surely feel snug and safe for the unknown journey ahead.