Treasure Hidden

A short TV clip caught my attention today. A few kilometers from St Julien is Vallon Pont-D’Arc, the gateway to the Ardèche. I visited it last year, along with thousands of other tourists. Hidden away, within earshot of the chattering, lay the Grotte Chauvet-Pont d’Arc  with its cave paintings dating back 32,000 years. France has many such sites, all of which have been more or less spoiled by the tramp of tourist feet, the bacteria in their breath and the exposure to the twenty-first century that they brought with them.  So far, the Chauvet grotto, home to the oldest jewel of Paleolithic cave art yet discovered, is unique in the world and considered to be the birthplace of the art, the cradle of artistic creation. Mammoth, bison, lions, hyenas and other exotic, long-extinct wildlife are depicted. The only thing missing are portraits of the artists themselves; perhaps they considered themselves as mere observers and recorders of creation, too insignificant for their own inclusion. The cavity was discovered in South Ardèche as recently as December 1994 and this treasure is to be handled differently. It will never be revealed to mass tourism; a replica will be made instead. I shall be leaving France in a few days and I was thinking about how much I have seen superficially and know a little about and yet how very little I really understand or have simply not been aware of. Just as the speleologists who first came upon it marveled at the fact that it had been there all the time – under their noses – and anthropologists studied the sophistication of the representations; better than the two dimensional Egyptian and Babylonian remains of so much later when culture was supposed to be higher and men lived in great cities like Nineveh and Thebes. This little movie tells the story.

The older we get, the less we really know, it would seem.

The Rich and the Righteous

A friend posted recently about abuse of wealth and privilege, which started a train of thought about the appropriately moral use of both and I found myself in something of a dilemma, since I have always had a problem with both giving and receiving. If I give more, does that make me more ‘spiritual’ than he who gives less? How should I calculate what I need, righteously separated from what I want and should I subtract it first so that I know how much I have to give away? Is giving just money?  Can I quantify what I have received against some arbitrary yardstick?  Questions such as these, deceptively simple, occasionally trouble my thinking like burrs on a sweater. We are creatures of precedent, after all, so to whom should we look for guidance and do the role models we select genuinely fit with a postmodern, materially fuelled lifestyle?

This from Basil of Caesarea…

“If you have been blessed with more money and goods than others, it is so you can meet the needs of those others. It takes wealth to care for the needy; a little paid out for the needs of each person, and all at once there is sharing. Whoever loves his neighbour as himself [as Christ taught], will not hold on to more than his neighbour has.” (Sermon: To the Rich)

Basil’s contemporary, John Chrysostom, bishop of Antioch, echoed this.

“Wealth is like a snake; it will twist around the hand and bite unless one knows how to use it properly.”

The huge injustices that wealth creates are intolerable to him. But Chrysostom is no proto-Marxist.

“Should we require soldiers to come and seize the rich person’s gold and distribute it among his destitute neighbors? Should we beg the emperor to impose a tax on the rich so great that it reduces them to the level of the poor and then to share the proceeds of that tax among everyone?” 
“Equality imposed by force would achieve nothing, and do much harm. The rich whose gold was taken away would feel bitter and resentful; while the poor who received the gold form the hands of soldiers would feel no gratitude, because no generosity would have prompted the gift. Far from bringing moral benefit to society, it would actually do moral harm. Material justice cannot be accomplished by compulsion; a change of heart will not follow. The only way to achieve true justice is to change people’s hearts first — and then they will joyfully share their wealth.” (On Living Simply)

How very revolutionary of him and how hopelessly far I have strayed. The poor are not slaves to the rich in the Kingdom of Heaven. 
A few desert-dwellers who think they can treat people like cattle because of their wealth and influence might do well to bear it in mind.

Hopeful Travel

Travelling on bucket shop airlines can hardly be in the category of grand luxe where one is offered lottery tickets by wide-eyed and enthusiastic cabin staff and you have to pay for the drinks. Fetching up in foreign airports when the bus ride to one’s destination take longer than the flight is hardly business class. It must be admitted, however, that there are one or two hidden advantages. 

Arriving in Beauvais is a delight, not least because one can pick one’s luggage off the arrival carousel within seconds of disembarkation and also because the old town, largely ignored by the travellers being shovelled into buses for Paris, is quiet and its cathedral, optimistically named St Peter’s, has the tallest Gothic interior in Europe. They built a spire once, but it fell down, being over a hundred and fifty metres in height, which would have made it the second highest structure in the world in the mid sixteenth century, but its absence takes nothing from the grandeur of a sexpartite vaulted ceiling almost fifty metres high. 

I liked it particularly because, just like the Church, it’s not finished. Various builders had tried to develop the structure over the centuries in order to allow maximum light inside and the consequent collapses, trial and error is a masterpiece of hopeful travel, the incomplete nave, originally Roman, a paradigm of the journey of faith we all undertake.

Seeking Vikings

A very bored moose. Or, possibly, elk.

If you want to know all about Stockholm,  plus pictures, forget it. Look on the internet; that’s what it’s for. If you want to know what the Vikings were up to, you can buy a T shirt with all the venues and gigs on it from 793 to 1066. If I were to tell you that the city is beautiful, relaxed and full of confident, happy people with blonde hair, blue eyes and remarkably good teeth, you probably wouldn’t believe me. Should I venture to suggest that a large proportion were outdoorsy, fit, and walk around wearing backpacks – with full access for the disabled – this too might not be believed, especially in the light of the fact that tattoo and piercing parlours flourish and quite a number of persons engrave themselves, often inappropriately. If I were to also suggest that the city was unpolluted, traffic by Parisian standards was light and well-behaved and people obeyed the ‘don’t walk’ signs, I can almost hear a lightly mocking laugh. I could also make a guess that it is possible to travel in outstandingly clean relative comfort, without snarling or crowd control, to reach from one side of the archipelago to the other in less than an hour by bus, tram, tunnelbahn or boat.

One such boat does a hop-on-hop-off circuit and one stop houses the  rather impressive Nordic Museum and also the Vasa

A very expensive mistake

In 1626, King Gustav II Adolf  ordered his finest shipbuilders to build a vessel fit for a king. With an extra tier of gunports. Nobody could quite summon the political will to tell His Majesty that this was a really, really bad idea, which was a shame, because the customer isn’t always right. Workers toiled night and day for two years to assemble a beautifully carved warship which sank within one nautical mile of her launching dock on her maiden voyage in Stockholm harbour, blown over by a light squall. The extra gunports meant that there wasn’t enough room for the ballast so the great beast simply toppled over like a pot-bellied pig, where she lay in embarrassed silence for the next three hundred and some years. Gustav was, understandably, a mite ticked, but since the extra gunports were his idea in the first place he agreed to let bygones be bygones and nobody was flogged or executed for carelessness. He had the idea of decorating his masterpiece with brightly coloured, intricate carvings of Roman Caesars, with the exception of Augustine, who was replaced by himself. King David also features in the lineup, since His Majesty was something of an admirer and regarded his Lutheran inspired warfare against his Catholic cousin Sigismund, King of Poland in much the same way as he had read that David attacked the Philistines. Oh, dear, not again…

Rather better engineering raised the entire boat intact in 1961 and over 95% of the original structure has been recovered, the brackish waters of the Baltic having prevented extensive damage from seaborne worms.
A very nice little house

The next stop on the boat tour was Djurgården on which is housed Skansen, or Sweden in miniature,  houses assembled in a living museum of mostly Swedish history amidst pleasant woodland. Apple-cheeked, flaxen-haired and pigtailed maidens in traditional clothing give history lessons in the buildings while doing a little crochet. There’s also a small zoo housing mostly Scandinavian animals. I have always wanted to see an elk, although the psychology of wanting to see a very large deer wearing a pair of oven gloves on its head is probably labyrinthine and obscure. After the brown bears, wolves and grey seals, we were finally introduced. The female and its fawn looked at me disinterestedly and I can tick it off on the bucket list. The photograph is of the creature in the next enclosure who gets in because it has antlers. I thought it was a male elk, but my so-called ‘friends’  from Canada tell me it’s a moose. It looked quite stupidly at me so perhaps they’re right.

Mediaeval Detours

Humans have lived in Eymet, a small town south of Bergerac in the Dordogne  for thousands of years. Tools dating from all the prehistoric periods have been found  and jewellery and domestic utensils indicate Bronze Age habitation. The dolmen of Eylias and the sites of standing stones, the “Peyrelevades”, suggest the existence of a Gallic cult, a “nemet”, which is probably the origin of the town’s name. These days, it’s the Brits who have taken over, forty per cent of the population, perhaps in response to Sidoine Apollinaire, the Latin poet who wrote: “This entire valley is so full of vineyards flowered meadows, cultivated fields, fruit tree plantations deliciously shaded by hedges, watered by springs crossed by streams, rich in harvests, that their owners seem to have had a vision of paradise.” Fourteen out of sixteen B and B’s I am reliably informed, are owned and run by the old enemy, the English, one of whom I had a drink with the other day in his half-finished farmhouse a few kilometers out of town. Pensions don’t go quite as far in the Dordogne as they once did, however, and those planning a retirement servicing the British community with marmalade and Marmite had better think again. I did however find a book or two in the Thursday market, where the English sellers are outclassed by the natives in terms of goods and salesmanship by the locals; nevertheless I ended up paying less than a third of the cost of a new copy in W H Smith in rue de Rivoli.

On the way westward, a small hilltop village caught our eye. Flanked by pristinely kept vineyards and surprisingly large châteaux, a short detour was rewarded by an hour or two in St Emilion, which every wine drinker knows is world-famous for its reds in particular. 

For the serious buffs, Château Ausone and Château Cheval Blanc are the only two wines currently classified as ‘premiers grands crus classes A’, but there are over fifty grands crus in the region. Apparently. The original owner of the Ausone lands was the Latin poet Ausonius, a late and perhaps not very enthusiastic convert to Christianity, who died about 395 CE. The modern town, only seven hundred years old, was founded by a monk, Emilion, who decided to live in a cave and around whom a cult grew based on the fruit of the vine and, presumably, of the Spirit. Mediaeval streets and monuments are remarkably well-preserved and there are old churches, ramparts and underground monuments – even a monolithic church plus catacombs – to explore. 

Parts of it reminded me of the Old City in Jerusalem, or even small Tuscan villages, probably because of the narrow, cobbled escalettes and the pervasive remnants of monasticism in the cloisters. Ah, Rome again… 

Joe and Mary

It seemed a good idea at the time. Leaving Bordeaux – grey, uninspiring and rather too linear for my ragamuffin taste, for a visit to Arcachon on the Atlantic coast. We were rather hoping to pick up a boat at Thiers jetty and see the houses on stilts,admire the architecture – very New Orleans and chill suitably in a harbour café. But, no. The traffic into town was worse than Fahaheel on a Friday night. Customarily, we find pallets on which to lay a weary head very much along the lines of banging on the door and demanding entrance. I stopped the car outside a quite chic three star establishment. A concierge self-importantly informed me with a thin smile that there was nothing available in Arcachon. I made the mistake of not believing him and spent the next hour pleading importunately at hotel desks. “On a rien, monsieur”  – the litany turned into a mantra. It seemed that the entire tourist population had descended on the town for purposes unspecified, traffic was choking and my temper was shortening by the minute. Short of stuffing a cushion up Gipsy’s front and asking if they might have a garage to spare, I was rapidly running out of ideas, and perhaps for the first time in my life felt a little like another weary traveller who got into town a bit late one night with nowhere to sleep. Eventually, even stables being unavailable I headed back towards Bordeaux and spotted a construction of glass and steel which turned out to be a four star spa resort hotel.

OK. The hell with the cost. King size beds, a thingy to plug your iPhone into and some very impressive facilities. Nine separate shower heads and a pool with aquabiking and jacuzzi. Nice…
We were close enough to town to see The Dune du Pilat,  the largest sand dune in Europe, formed during the eighteenth century from sand accumulated by west winds off the Atlantic. Feeling a little like taking coals to Newcastle, we climbed it, fortunately on a sunless morning;  in the heat it would have felt like the Sahara. Surrounded by forest, nearly three  kilometres long and five hundred metres wide, it’s an impressive slice of silicon dioxide, I have to say. Stairs take you to the summit, over a hundred metres in height. The view over Arcachon Bay would perhaps have been pleasanter at sunset, but, much like Joe and Mary, beggars could not be choosers.

Old Money

Ernest Hemingway is responsible for a famous misquotation of F Scott Fitzgerald’s. According to Hemingway, a conversation between him and Fitzgerald went:

Fitzgerald: ‘The rich are different than you and me.’
Hemingway: ‘Yes, they have more money.’
This never actually happened; it is a retelling of an actual encounter between Hemingway and a female acquaintance. This was brought to mind by a visit made yesterday to Old Money. We were invited to stay overnight on our way south at a Burgundy farmhouse, some of which dated from the seventeenth century and had been in the family for generations, complete with lake and gigantic sequoia. The place stood in its own grounds, had survived the ravages of the Revolution and had been added to tastefully over the years. What was somewhat ironic was that wealth wasn’t paraded like a trophy – no gold Rolexes or Aston Martins in the driveways – but instead was present in antique furniture and works of art on the walls – several examples of an early and quite obscure Impressionist bought because the owner simply liked them. The art world is secretive about auction prices but a fairly cursory search revealed a number of recent oeuvres had been on the market – I happen to know where at least one of them ended up.
Dinner was for fourteen, presided over by la maîtresse with sons, daughters and their spouses in attendance. I felt I had to be on best behaviour since she had drawn up a written seating plan and placed me next to her. One son is a world authority on Egyptian philosophy, another is an impossibly senior antiquarian at Versailles and an authority on the Napoleonic period, and the ‘girlie’ of the family became an artist and landscaper. I felt intellectually outclassed since everyone but me seemed to speak at least three languages. I should like to say that I enjoyed myself. I did not. The old house, beautiful as it undoubtedly was, had a melancholy resonance about it, its secrets held close, small islands of truth and honesty poked their heads up like lonely icebergs in an ocean of stiff formalism but the unspoken narratives were deep and voluminous. A child, autistic perhaps and lacking compassion, eyed me guilelessly, a paradigm for the emotionally shuttered adults surrounding her.

Customer Service

The other day, I had occasion to make a phone call to a financial institution. Spending time on the phone with a customer service agent is an interesting exercise in the art of developing patience, eliciting wistful thoughts about converting to Buddhism. In addition, calls are recorded “for quality assurance purposes” but only the company has access to the tape, so there’s no meaningful record of the conversation – at least from the customer’s perspective. How very convenient.
I dialed and went through the usual labyrinth of “ for pension advice, press four”. “If you wish to speak to a service representative, press ‘hash’ then ‘the last four digits of your Social Security number, followed by ‘hash’”. Waiting to listen to all the options means that you’ve forgotten what option two was for and end up pressing the first convenient button in the hope that somewhere in the cowshed of a building where such calls are handled there’s actually someone there, someone who preferably speaks a little English and isn’t a minimum wage leprous Romanian who’s hired by the day.  Hoop-jumping completed. I waited, trying not to listen to not very soothing music. Female voice “Your call is important to us….blah..” No it isn’t, you mindless, patronising hussy. If it were, I would now be speaking to a real person, not an inflatable like you. More vapid (and identical) soothing music plus additional reassurance of the vital importance of my call. My fingers tightened imperceptibly on the phone as I entertained myself by thinking how nice it would be to bang someone’s head against the wall. Finally, a youngish male voice who “needs to run through a few security checks with me”. My mother’s maiden name? Haven’t a clue but best guess what I might have said thirty years ago when first asked gets me past. There is such a sense of relief that one is actually communicating with a human being that one bonds with the youth, gormless as he undoubtedly is, as one might bond with a kidnapper.
Business concluded. “Is there anything else I can help you with today?” Unless he’s offering to wash my car or buy me dinner he can get the hell off the line. “Thank you for calling”. I can hear the gratitude in his voice.

Bicycles. Amongst Other Things.

I’d been wanting to write something about Amsterdam for some time. The Dutch are tolerant, liberal and are so laid back, they are almost horizontal, in contrast to their town houses which are characteristically arranged vertically, with small rooms and several floors. Usually curtainless, one sees people eating or walking around in them in various stages of undress, at least that was the case on the picturesque island where we stayed with friends. Our Mexican hostess said much the same about her home town, adding that houseowners usually left their doors open as well. Only the tourists gawp, rudely. The message is clear, nothing to hide. In France, the situation is precisely reversed. French exteriors are often shuttered and nondescript, rarely as interesting as the inner courtyards and there is often a nightly ritual of closing the shutters. It occurred to me that this might be because Holland has a history of Protestant reform,  and France is predominantly Catholic with attendant guilt.

Tourists arriving at Central Station however, invariably do gawp at the sight of the multi-story ‘bicycle flat’, a parking structure used by thousands daily and unless your ride is pimped in some recognisable way it might be difficult to locate it. One has to bear in mind that bicycles outnumber people in Holland and they are everywhere – car parking being prohibitively expensive. Not for the Dutch the flamboyant, flat-handlebarred multigeared varieties so beloved of the French – these are tall Oxford machines with no gears and curved handlebars, their riders expertly weaving in and out of pedestrians, who are expected to get out of the way,  or along specially built cycle lanes. There’s something almost erotic about a tall, willowy Dutch girl with arrow-straight back, skirt billowing, and hair flying, chatting to a friend on a mobile phone while effortlessly negotiating all obstacles around the University. The public transport system just – well – works. Trams and buses get you, hassle-free, wherever you need to go and if you don’t happen to have exactly the right pre-purchased ticket, that’s OK too. We headed south toward Dam Square, flanked by the Royal Palace and the Nieuwe Kerk (New Church, built 1408, newer than the Oude Kerk – there must be a joke there somewhere) to the west and the National Monument, commemorating the victims of World War II, to the east.

Shopping in  Kalverstraat, we found the alley that leads to the Begijnhof, a peaceful hidden courtyard edged with charming homes of single women who pledge their time for religious service. There’s also a tiny chapel where a magnificent baritone was rehearsing Vaughan Williams for a concert that evening.
Beyond this lies the rest of Amsterdam: a series of concentric and bisecting canals, known as the Grachtengordel (canal ring). Lined with centuries-old gabled canal houses, the area is beautifully intact, not just a preserved open-air museum; it is still the functional heart of the city, vibrant and energetic.
The canals are punctuated by churches that can be used to navigate the city. With its distinctive blue crown, the tower of Westerkerk (West Church) is the tallest in Amsterdam, dominating the skyline near the Anne Frank House and the Homomonument a testament to Dutch liberalism.

Being gay isn’t exactly compulsory but, there’s – er – a lot of it about…Following  the canals southeast brought us to the quaint shopping and dining quarter called the Negen Straatejs or ‘9 Streets’. Wandering further crosses humpbacked bridges and through alleys filled with countless café terraces. These often give directly on to a canal – regardless of health and safety. The British or the French would insist the café owners build small retaining walls or chain-link fences – not so the Dutch. It’s not apparently unusual for a customer, full of beery bonhomie, to topple backwards into the canal, to the riotous amusement of all. It’s only about a metre deep, so the chance of fatality is slight. I was given a whistle-stop tour of the red-light district from a friend who used to live there, and who had a disturbingly encyclopaedic knowledge of what kind of attractions were available in any one of a dozen tiny alleyways flanked by full-length windowed doorways where the occupants were displaying their wares quite unashamedly – they pay taxes after all. 

Brits, unsurprisingly, head for Oudezijds Voorburgwal,  and find the original Bulldog ‘coffee house’. It might be a bit passé now, but this is where it all began back in 1975 and Number 90 is generally recognised as having been the first ‘coffeeshop’ in Amsterdam. Not the best cannabis in town but the orange juice is good and, being in the heart of the red-light district, the views are interesting. The police are, it is said, tolerant towards Brits who wander up and down, stoned off their faces. Did I? What do you think…?
The Dutch are great readers, so I felt quite at home, not least in the iconic Bibliotheek – a seven storey, open plan library with a self-service restaurant offering some of the best food in the city and also the finest views.

Fellow Travellers

I was in Holland some days ago and it was noticeable that the Dutch are a clear-thinking, organised and rational people. A friend whom I admire very much sent me the following and I reproduce it here in its entirety. In the manner of ‘The Canterbury Tales’, Erasmus of Rotterdam comments – not very flatteringly – on his companions on a pilgrimage to Walsingham. We sometimes require more of our fellow-pilgrims than they are perhaps capable of giving.
Hans Holbein “Erasmus of Rotterdam” 1523  National Gallery, London

Desiderius Erasmus, 1466-1536
Erasmus stands as the supreme type of cultivated common sense applied to human affairs. He rescued theology from the pedantries of the Schoolmen, exposed the abuses of the Church, and did more than any other single person to advance the Revival of Learning.
* * *
From The Praise of Folly (1509)
The merchants are the biggest fools of all. They carry on the most sordid business and by the most corrupt methods. Whenever it is necessary, they will lie, perjure themselves, steal, cheat, and mislead the public. Nevertheless, they are highly respected because of their money. There is no lack of flattering friars to kowtow to them, and call them Right Honourable in public. The motive of the friars is clear: they are after some of the loot. . . .
. . . After the lawyers come the philosophers, who are reverenced for their beards and the fur on their gowns. They announce that they alone are wise and that the rest of men are only passing shadows. . . . The fact that they can never explain why they constantly disagree with each other is sufficient proof that they do not know the truth about anything. They know nothing at all, yet profess to know everything. They are ignorant even of themselves, and are often too absent-minded or near-sighted to see the ditch or stone in front of them. . . .
. . . Perhaps it would be wise to pass over the theologians in silence. That short-tempered and supercilious crew is unpleasant to deal with. . . . They will proclaim me a heretic. With this thunderbolt they terrify the people they don’t like. Their opinion of themselves is so great that they behave as if they were already in heaven; they look down pityingly on other men as so many worms. A wall of imposing definitions, conclusions, corollaries, and explicit and implicit propositions protects them. They are full of big words and newly-invented terms. . . .
. . . Next to the theologians in happiness are those who commonly call themselves the religious and monks. Both are complete misnomers, since most of them stay as far away from religion as possible, and no people are seen more often in public. They are so detested that it is considered bad luck if one crosses your path, and yet they are highly pleased with themselves. They cannot read, and so they consider it the height of piety to have no contact with literature…. Most of them capitalise on their dirt and poverty by whining for food from door to door. . . . These smooth fellows simply explain that by their very filth, ignorance, boorishness, and insolence they enact the lives of the apostles for us. It is amusing to see how they do everything by rule, almost mathematically. Any slip is sacrilege, each shoe string must have so many knots and must be of a certain colour. . . . They even condemn each other, these professors of apostolic charity, making an extraordinary stir if a habit is belted incorrectly or if its colour is a shade too dark. . . . The monks of certain orders recoil in horror from money, as if it were poison, but not from wine or women. They take extreme pains, not in order to be like Christ, but to be unlike each other. Most of them consider one heaven an inadequate reward for their devotion to ceremony and traditional details. They forget that Christ will condemn all of this and will call for a reckoning of that which He has prescribed, namely, charity.
Ah, yes. Charity.
From a song I once used to sing…

If I speak with tongues of men and of angels
If I prophesy, and understand all
Though I have all faith  for mountains to be removed
Though I feed the poor, and give up my life…

If I have not Charity
If love does not flow from me
I am nothing
Jesus, reduce me to love.