Thursday, July 21, 2011

Echoes of conflict

Looking out of our living-room window at the peaceful pastoral scene beyond the garden, it's almost impossible to imagine how very different things were in this corner of Normandy nearly 70 years ago. One of the enduring fascinations of spending part of every year here is discovering the history of the place and, in particular, learning how these peaceful fields and hills and villages were so viciously fought-over in the struggle for the freedom of Europe.

It’s ironic in some ways that I, who so love ancient buildings with their profound atmosphere of history, should end up buying a cottage in an area where many (if not most) of the buildings in the little towns and villages post-date World War 2, being built to replace those which were bombed and shelled into rubble during the fighting. Even our own little house had to be partially rebuilt, after being hit by a shell in a tank battle during the German counter-attack in August 1944.

I can tell you that it is deeply sobering to pick up and browse an academic study of the campaign and see how many references there are to the battle that raged for days through our small village, as the American forces struggled to contain the German Panzer offensive. It is even more sobering to visit the war memorial in the graveyard which surrounds the rebuilt church and see how many civilians from the village’s tiny population are listed alongside those who fell in battle.

The old church in the early 20th century

Drawing of the rebuilt church

On Wednesdays we often go to the big weekly market at the nearby town of Saint-Hilaire-du-Harcou√ęt. With a population of about 5000 it’s one of the largest of the market towns in this sparsely-populated area, though by English standards it's little more than a large village. Yet because of its strategic position on a crossroads between important north-south and east-west roads, the centre of this small town was virtually destroyed in a single night, when on June 14th 1944 the Americans bombed it as part of the Allied effort to disrupt road and rail links and prevent the enemy bringing more supplies and troops to the front. The same story can be told of other neighbouring small towns like Mortain and Sourdeval, both of which suffered immense damage in a very short space of time.

Aerial view of Saint-Hilaire after the bombing

Saint-Hilaire church today

Our shelves are gradually accumulating a collection of books and pamphlets portraying both the violence and complexity of the conflict and the huge damage it inflicted on people and buildings. To browse the old photos of places we know well and see how much has been lost, and how much painstakingly reconstructed, deepens our affection for an area which seems more like home all the time.

To talk to our French neighbours who experienced the war, or who heard their parents describe their experiences, brings home to us that history in our part of southern Normandy isn’t to be found so much in ancient buildings (though some do survive) as in the memories of those who lived through it all and in what they so laboriously rebuilt from the ruins of their homes and their past history. 

The war may have ended before I was born, but in Normandy there is still a deep awareness and respect for what was endured, both by those who lived here and those who fought, and often died, to liberate them. The echoes of conflict are still very audible to those who listen for them.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Kittens in the woodshed

Last Thursday was Bastille Day here in France, and after all the rain earlier in the week the sun was kind enough to put in an appearance for us. With it being a holiday I couldn’t disturb our neighbours' peace by mowing the grass, so decided just to do some tidying-up around the garden and enjoy the welcome sunshine.

We’d seen nothing of the kittens in the woodshed for days – hardly surprising, really, given how wet it’s been – so it was lovely to go round the corner of the house and see a small pair of ears sticking up out of a hollow in the woodpile.

As quietly as possible I dashed back into the house for the camera and spent the next few minutes gently edging as close as I could to the woodshed without alarming the owner of the ears. Finally I got close enough to see that there were in fact three pairs of ears, but sadly no sign of the fourth, which had belonged to a very pretty tortoiseshell and white kitten. It’s a hard world for feral kittens and we don’t think she’s made it this far.

They’ve grown a lot in the two weeks since we first spotted them, though they’re still being fed by their thin and frazzled-looking mother, who has now also started bringing them solid food to try. After they had been fed that evening, the kittens began to venture out and play in the grass near the woodshed. Unfortunately we were watching them through the window of the downstairs shower-room and it isn’t easy trying to take photos through the slats of a venetian blind, but I did my best.

If we were here permanently, I would be sorely tempted to try to tame these three little darlings, but as we’re not, I don’t feel I can interfere. All we can do is to leave them to be cared for and taught by their semi-wild mother and quietly admire them from a distance for their amazing beauty, grace and agility.  Me, a cat-lover? Perish the thought. J

Sunday, July 10, 2011

The Seven Links Project

I was quietly browsing Google Reader with my coffee this morning, when I almost fell off my chair to find that Karen at Being Koy had nominated me for the Seven Links Project, which was started recently by Katie at Trip Base.

The aim (in Katie’s words) “is to unite bloggers (from all sectors) in a joint endeavour to share lessons learned and create a bank of long but not forgotten blog posts that deserve to see the light of day again”.

It gives the nominated bloggers a reason to look back over their output and, without too much agonising, to choose certain posts which they feel are worth highlighting. Once I recovered from the shock, I enjoyed reflecting over my as-yet limited list of posts and making my choice.

The rules are simple:

1. The Blogger is nominated to take part by another blogger
2. He/she publishes their 7 links on their own blog. One link for each category.
3. He/she nominates up to five more bloggers to take part.

The categories are very varied:

My most beautiful post   The day I fell in love

This post took me back to a turning-point in my youth and I enormously enjoyed writing it. Though I always try to write as well as I can, I found the words flowed particularly easily and did what I wanted them to, in terms of evoking that long-ago experience and its life-changing significance for me.

My most popular post   It really depends what you mean by popular. J 

In terms of page-views, as measured by the not-always-reliable Blogger Stats, it is without doubt Where did the years go?  which was written on our daughter’s fortieth birthday and was also a contender for Most Beautiful Post for very much the same reasons I give above.

In terms of comments it has to be A sentimental old fool which started as a bit of fun, but really seemed to strike a chord with my readers.

My most controversial post   As my family could tell you, I don’t do controversy any more, at least not deliberately and in public, but Lessons for life (see below) deals with difficult subjects, as does A milestone birthday.

My most helpful post   A tree for all seasons 

(at least for people googling for photos of a tree (ash or not) year-round J As I don’t write an advice or information blog, this wasn’t easy, but the number of times a Google search has led people to this post leads me to hope that a few of them found it helpful, or at least mildly interesting.

A post whose success surprises me   I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills

This is one of my earliest posts and the first to which I managed to add photos. It is simply a reflection on how my life has always been lived among hills and I hadn’t anticipated how much this would appeal to others or how many page-views it would get.

A post I feel didn’t get the attention it deserved  Images

I didn't find this category very easy either, as I’m reluctant, not to say unable, to judge how much attention anything I write really deserves. However, in the spirit of the project, I mention this post.  It was written at the time when coverage of the Japanese earthquake and tsunami was filling the news media daily, so my small reflection on the human cost of this catastrophe went almost unnoticed.

The post I am most proud of   Lessons for life

This is another post reflecting on a significant time in my youth, in this case when, as a student of German, I worked for a few months as a ward orderly in a care home in Hamburg in the mid-1960s. I spent a long time on this post, trying to sum up what this experience had meant to me by remembering three women I had cared for and something of their stories, and feel I succeeded better than I could ever have hoped.

I realise I've snuck in an extra link, but trust I won't be excommunicated for one small sin....

5 bloggers

Among so many great bloggers it’s hard to pick just 5 to share something of their blog and their thoughts on blogging, but here is my list of nominees:

Wylye Girl @  The River Cottage Diaries  who gave me my very first blog-roll spot when I was just starting out – thanks, Wylye Girl. J

The Broad @  ABroad with a View

David @  The Vernacular Curate  (from whose blog I garnered a lot of useful advice about blogging)

Image via Wylio

Saturday, July 09, 2011

Rain, rain go away…

….but if it doesn’t, there are always books. Since DH’s mother went home on Tuesday morning, we haven’t had a day without rain, often rather a lot of rain, so the garden is still far too sodden for me to work outside. Of course there is always knitting to do and Assisi to ponder, in the gaps between the usual chores and my daily French language practice of listening to the radio or reading the local paper, but wet weather is when books really come into their own for me.

We’re getting quite a good collection in our French house now, and by the time I’ve read them all I should have forgotten the earliest ones and be able to start all over again. Quite how permanent English-speaking residents of France satisfy their craving for reading matter without bankrupting themselves I’m not sure, but we manage very well for our three summer months here.

At the bottom of my just-read pile is Maxwell's Reunion by M J Trow, followed by Wild About The Boy by Dolores Gordon-Smith, an enjoyable mystery in the Agatha Christie/Margery Allingham mould. Set in 1920s Britain, its likeable hero is a mystery writer turned amateur detective and its portrayal of the period is shot through with a deep awareness of the dark shadow cast by the First World War.

About to join that pile is something quite different and I have to thank The Broad at ABroad with a View  for the recommendation. It’s Pass The Polenta by Teresa Lust and consists of a series of truly wonderful essays on food and the memories it evokes. I’ve revelled in the author’s passion for her subject and found it engaging, touching, funny and mouth-watering in turn. Definitely one to reread in the future.

Alongside that I’ve just this morning started A Letter of Mary, the third of the wonderful Mary Russell mysteries by Laurie King. Starting from the premise made in the first of the series, The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, of the unlikely, yet completely believable, encounter between an elderly Sherlock Holmes and a young woman graduate student, the books describe the growing relationship between them and the intricate cases they undertake. This is really excellent writing: densely plotted, intelligently and beautifully written, with strongly-drawn characters and a gripping atmosphere of mystery and undefined threat.

With books like that to lose myself in, I may not even notice when the sun comes out again. All I need now are your suggestions as to what to read once my pile is finished….

Image via Wylio

Thursday, July 07, 2011

A city set on a hill

A saint and his setting 
Part 1: A child grows up

On a grey, wet and windy day in Normandy, with gardening out of the question, what could be more enjoyable than to bask (at least in memory) in the hot sunshine of Italy and think back over our pilgrimage to Assisi.   Not that the sun always shines there, but as it happens I've been fortunate with the weather on all my visits, so that my indelible image of Assisi is of white or pink or golden limestone, glowing against the bluest of skies.

I’ve been fascinated by Francis, both his life and his writings, for some years now and it is this, as much as the beauty of Assisi or the warmth of the Italian sunshine, which keeps drawing me back to the place where he lived.

The sun must have shone just as often and as warmly in the Assisi of the late twelfth century.  It was there, in 1181 or 82, that a baby boy was born to Pietro Bernadone, a wealthy cloth merchant of the town, and his French wife, Pica.

Image via Wikipedia

Pietro was away on a journey to France at the time of his son’s birth and his deeply religious wife had her child baptised Giovanni, in honour of Saint John the Baptist. This didn’t please Pietro, however, and on his return he renamed his son "Francesco" the little "Frenchman", perhaps because of his wife’s nationality, or his own love of France.

The house where Francesco or Francis was born no longer exists, though traces can still be seen in the fabric of the church which was later built over his childhood home. However the cathedral of San Rufino, in whose font he was baptised, still stands proudly in upper Assisi, looking, from the outside at least, much as it must have done when baby Francis was taken there over 800 years ago.  

Chiesa Nuova  - Image via Wikipedia

San Rufino

Centuries after Francis’ death and rapid canonisation, the pious belief grew up that, like the Jesus he had spent his adult life following so closely, Francis too had been born in a stable, in his case the stable of his family home. Today, one can visit a tiny, windowless, mediaeval chapel, close to the site of his parents’ house, which legend says was created from that same stable.

Francis, cushioned by his comfortable and financially secure home, grew up to be a popular and carefree, even wild young man, much given to throwing parties for his friends and having a good time. However, the Italy in which he was growing up was politically much less secure and stable, as rapid social change undermined the feudal order.

In 1198 or 99 the people of Assisi attacked and destroyed the Roccas, the feudal castles, which in their rebuilt form still dominate Assisi.  The nobles who had lived there fled to Perugia, another hill town less than 15 miles away across the valley, and soon war broke out between Assisi and Perugia.

Francis, like many of his contemporaries, went off to fight for Assisi against her enemy. In 1202, at the age of about 20, he was captured and spent a year in prison in Perugia, but the experience seems not to have affected him too deeply, for, once released and back in Assisi, he continued his carefree and often expensive life. All this changed in 1204, when Francis became gravely ill and, as he slowly recovered, began for the first time to think seriously about his life.

Spoleto  -  Image via Wikipedia
The following year he left his home and his father’s business to fulfil his ambition to be a soldier and perhaps achieve knighthood. Travelling to join his lord, who was on his way to fight in the Fourth Crusade, Francis stopped at Spoleto, another ancient hill town above the Tiber valley.  Here, it is said, he saw a vision and at once turned back towards home, convinced that whatever God wanted him to do with his life, it would be in Assisi.

To be continued…

Saturday, July 02, 2011

Normal service will be resumed shortly

For the first time since I started blogging back in February, I’ve discovered that sometimes life just takes over and blogging has to take a back seat for a while.

In the three weeks since I last posted, we’ve arrived in Normandy, evicted the spiders and reminded ourselves how the wood burner works. In fact it was so cold and wet when we got here that we checked the calendar to make sure it really was mid-June and not mid-March. Since then we’ve been settling in, meeting up with friends we haven’t seen since last year and enjoying having DH’s mother staying with us for her annual visit to France

As soon as the rain stopped and things started to dry off, I also found myself expending considerable time and effort mowing the hayfield which was threatening to engulf the house. Actually, mowing the grass is one of the jobs I really enjoy here – fresh air, healthy exercise and the illusion that I’m creating a lawn out of a patch of bumpy and overgrown orchard. Meanwhile, my doughty, 87-year-old mother-in-law has been busy digging out a narrow flower border along the front wall of the house, which we have today planted out with lavender and calendula and London Pride.

Talking of orchards, I’ve also been enjoying another of my favourite occupations this week. At the local gardening club on Tuesday I was given an unexpected, but very welcome, invitation to help myself to a friend’s remaining raspberries and blackcurrants, as she’d already picked all they could possibly use.  This meant of course that I had to spend the next day turning them into jam, with the aid of my trusty, travelling jam pan. Stop laughing over there – you should know that there are some things one simply can’t leave behind for three months – especially in summer.

So nothing exciting, but all very pleasant, and absorbing enough to leave me with very little thinking time.  Assisi isn’t forgotten, but will just have to wait a little longer. Oh – and there are cherries to pick and kittens in the woodshed to watch….