As a child, Ireland was our guilty family secret. To be fair, the 1970’s wasn’t a great time to be a celtic tiger in mainland Britain, due chiefly to the exploits of the Irish Republican Army, blowing up civilians in my hometown of Birmingham and other English cities.
This and the ever present stereotype of the drunken thick, lazy paddy was enough to drive any first generation English family underground. The family name was changed, the Irish relatives were shunned and our heritage was buried. I couldn’t do much about the ginger hair…
My Granny Kate however, couldn’t quite keep her mouth shut. And I’m very, very nosy.
I always knew there was something “different” about her family. And being a fully paid up member of children’s literature, I fantasised that she must have been descended from an Irish King, complete with a treasure trove and a whole county to rule over (she always mentioned some weird places called Roscommon and Mayo like anyone in Britain had ever heard of such nonsense).
Thanks mainly to Ancestry.co.uk and the publication of Irish parish records, I have been able to discover the family secret…
We are Irish Travellers.
So. Not only did I have what is commonly viewed as the worst accent in the British Isles (Brummie), with ginger hair and a rather “common” set of relatives from the most dubious part of town, but I’m also a gypsy! Since Cher likes to put us amongst tramps and thieves, it’s not hard to imagine why my family decided to “bury” such revelations, become settled and start learning all the words to the National Anthem. I was even given a monarch’s name! (Albeit a German one but whatever…)
Somehow I always knew.
My gran used to sing a strange song about being in a caravan. And she played the spoons. Seriously though, the family worked traditionally with metal, my great grandfather shod horses during WW1 (Irish people did fight for King and Country although some people refuse to believe this). And they were unbelievably poor. I mean, the poorest of the poor. Yet they managed somehow to keep out of the workhouses, instead, living together as family units in one room, fixing stuff.
Ancestry.co.uk has enabled me to confirm that my dna is 96%, Irish, although distinct from the settled Irish population. So there we have it. That, plus the 4% Eastern European (Russian Roma), about puts the rather appropriate tin lid on it…
I’ve always been a wanderer. And a lover of camping. And I’m a dab hand at mending things…
So naturally, I needed to go back to Ireland. To find out where my family came from. And what made them end up in a Victorian slum in the heart of the West Midlands.
I have a love/hate relationship with flying. I love the sense of adventure I feel when I climb onboard the plane, bound for destinations that my ancestors only dreamed of, full of promise and excitement. I love the feeling of escape as I walk through the Departure Gates, leaving behind all thoughts of work and home, alone to self indulge and gorge on the unknown; new places to seek, new foods to taste, new languages to misunderstand,new history and art, new smells. I love the little indulgences. Time is irrelevant. When else would a glass of wine with a bacon butty seem reasonable at 05.00? I love the camaraderie of being with other passengers, this merry band of pilgrims on our way to pastures new (except the screaming kids. And the drunks. And anyone who tries to make conversation with me).
But boy, do I fear flying. Well, it’s not flying that I fear. It’s crashing and dying.
Yes, yes, I know that statistically, flying is the safest form of travel. Yes, yes, Mr Richard Branson, I know that I have more chance of dying in a road accident on the way to the airport than actually on board the flight itself. And yes, yes, I have made vague attempts to understand the technicalities of flight, thermal dynamics, jet engines and wingy things that move.
But I still just don’t get it. My brain cannot rationalise how such a big, heavy, metal box full of people can stay in the sky.
So my travel plans are always a mixture of fear and excitement. And a few days before my plans come to fruition, my stomach begins its downward spiral of dread, preparation for doom (the will is in the box under my bed, girls) and self reproach for putting myself in yet another state of panic. For me, flying is like playing Russian Roulette. Yet how else can I fulfil my travel dreams in such a short time?
My first thought when planning a new journey is: “Will I have to fly?” And if yes, then for how long? So far, Australia, New Zealand and South East Asia have not made it onto my fuckit list. Not because they have little to offer me – on the contrary – I would love to visit. No, it is the thought of spending 12+ hours suspended in mid air that puts me off buying a round the world flight ticket. If I could sail then I would. If I could walk, then I would. Maybe train?
Last year I flew to Reykjavik, Seattle, Las Vegas, Dallas, New Orleans, Washington and back to London in the space of 10 days. I fervently thought that such plane hopping would cure me of my fears. After all,Americans use planes like buses apparently. Alas, no. This morning, on board my flight to Krakow, the kindly flight attendant provided me with a paper bag in which to vomit. And no, I hadn’t drunk wine at 05.00…
…as though it had been administrative buildings, or maybe a factory. The truth of course, is that it was both. An organisation whose principle purpose was the extraction of labour and then the extermination of people who were “surplus to requirements” and who seemingly posed a threat to the regime.
I wasn’t sure how I was going to feel about visiting the Nazi concentration camps of Auschwitz-Birkenau. As mentioned in previous posts, twentieth century history was sadly lacking in my education and all I knew of the Holocaust was what I’d read in Anne Frank’s diary as a child and from programmes I’d listened to on the radio. It all seemed such a long time ago. Would my visit provoke wailing and gnashing of teeth or was I just too divorced from the events that happened, to feel anything?
I arrived on a bitter cold January morning. Minus 17 degrees celsius. My first thought was for the inmates of the camp and how on earth any of them managed to survive the extremes of temperature. Clearly most of them didn’t. To begin with, many people weren’t even registered upon arrival. The elderly, infirm, pregnant and children were gassed straight away which is why it’s difficult to ascertain exact numbers of victims. Exposure, starvation and disease killed those who weren’t murdered. Of an approximate 1 million prisoners, only 7,000 were liberated by the Soviet Army on January 27th, 1945.
Of all the facts that I had learnt about Auschwitz before coming to visit, the one thing that I couldn’t comprehend was just how it was logistically possible to kill so many people. Coming to visit answered the query for me. Auschwitz-Birkenau and the other components of the concentration camp relied on other methods of killing than just the gas chambers.
Many victims existed with such little food (approximately 1400 calories) and worked in such physically demanding jobs for 11 hours per day,that starvation and exhaustion killed them. And this was a deliberate part of the “Final Solution”, not a mere consequence of unseen events. Not everyone was destined to go to the gas chambers.
Wandering round both camps, it was impossible to process what exactly had happened here all those years ago. The buildings looked so regular. So institutional. The documentation in the exhibitions looked so efficient. Everything was devoid of emotion. So matter of fact. And I think that’s how it was arranged, and how it was executed. There was a “problem”. It needed a solution.
There was nothing to suggest any sense of humanity. This was not built as a place to live. This was a place whose purpose was to dispose of an unwanted problem in as efficient a manner as possible. Identities were removed along with souls. And if money could be made out of the labour of those lost souls before they met their miserable demise, then all the better.
There was a war on, after all.
Trying to rationalise this train of thought is impossible for anyone who has any sense of humanity and greater people than I have debated and will continue to debate how it could happen. All I know is that I felt such sorrow at the seeming “ordinariness” of the place. The displays of human hair, suitcases, crockery, shoes, spectacles and prayer shawls made me feel wretched. Possibly because such atrocities continue to happen in the world; it seems we have learned little since the Nazi genocides.
Life without Mr T consists of waves. They begin in a small way. The sorrows I mean. They trickle in and then fall away again with the minutae of life. The grief appears as pin pricks in the eyes and in the heart. Itslowly retreats again as daily tasks and busyness, and joy of life takes over.
Without warning, the grief spikes begin to gather momentum and to close in. It can be in the morning when first awakening, hopefully to be calmed with life’s daily grind. Or it can be an early evening feeling, when the day’s work is done and there’s nothing to fill the mind other than the past. This is when I try to focus on the future and make plans. Life must continue after all, in some form or other.
So I push onwards, onwards and onwards…
Then comes a day like today.The seventh wave. A day when no matter how much the sun is shining, how many birds in the park are entertaining me with their squabbles over left overs from yesterday’s picnics or how many children run around with joy in their hearts, glad to be free of the chains of the classroom.Or even the fact that I am travelling around this beautiful country (France), with all that it has to offer. This day belongs to my husband. I cannot “think of the good times” and “be glad that he didn’t suffer” – how does anyone know this anyway? What happens when the light goes out of someone’s eyes as they look at you? The seventh wave of sorrow will wash over me and there’s not a thing I can do about it. I have to succumb and go under. I have to take a deep breath and just hope that, as for the past 2.5 years, I will resurface. Again.
I’m feeling sorry for myself of course. I’m grieving for the loss of my own life. Of my own present and for our future lives in Spain, which would have begun in a month’s time.
For the loss of the one person in my life (ever, including the shrinks) that truly understood me. That never questioned my sometimes skewed view of the world – because he thought that way too. That shared my love for hardware shops,with all the paraphernalia and the smell of wood, varnish and the opportunities presented in the gadgets (I love gadgets). Stationery shops and the smell of new plastic pencil cases. The potential wrapped up in a brand new pen. For the absence of a love that understood howpeople can rage and shout and still be in love. For the loss of the recognition that sometimes I need to be alone, I cannot communicate and I cannot cooperatebut how, at other times,I cannot abide solitude and need to just cling to him, digging my nose into his womblike armpits; to feel safe.
So I try to be still. I try to let the wave wash over me and feel the emotions. To embrace them as signs of the love that we shared, of the love I still carry. And I weep. In a park. In Grenoble. Full of people eating their baguette luncheson the grass and enjoying the sun. For me, the sun will come out again and the wave will recede. Soon…
Well, first and foremost, I wasn’t planning on doing this road trip at all. I inadvertently ended up with a return ferry ticket for myself and my Mini, and had shelled out too much to cancel/change the details. So, Newhaven – Dieppe was my destination, whether I liked it or not.
I decided to take the opportunity to do another of many firsts since Mr T left me…take a ferry from my fair isle, cross the channel and drive around a country. Since I had some spare time, and a spare ticket for France, it seemed logical.
Except… in theory, yes, why not? Just mosey on down to the south coast of England, starting at 3.30am in order to catch a boat (do we catch boats?) in some torrential rainstorms following a heatwave. (Ok, we’re talking the UK here, so in reality we had some heavy rain after two quite warm and sunny days). Drive through France from Amiens in the north to the French Riviera in the south, via the French Alps (no snow at this time of year but some dodgy hill starts might still be the order of the day at some point),in a car whose steering wheel is on the wrong side, on the wrong side of the road. Without anyone being there to back seat drive for me (sometimes this can be useful), or see around lorries/tractors/blind bends when attempting to turn right. For 3 weeks. By myself. Using another language. Extremely badly. What could possibly go wrong?
Sur le Pont d’Avignon L’on y danse, l’on y danse Sur le Pont d’Avignon L’on y danse tous en rond
So, after a great time in Marseille, I was flagging. I had driven 1500 miles, spent most of 15 days by myself, and lugged my rucksack, cold box and backpack up more stairs than I care to remember… and I was remembering many things…
It was coming up to Mr T’s birthday. I was having a great time, but I knew that it was coming to an end. And the sorrow was beginning to increase. More and more, I was feeling the black cloud coming over, reminding me that, in a few days time, I should have been enjoying my husband’s retirement day and we should have been finalising our plans to move to Spain to begin a new life. Except that wasn’t going to happen. Instead I was alone, grieving again.
Avignon is the place where the Pope used to have his Palace, and what a palace. It’s also the place of the 15th century bridge or “pont”, on which traditional dances were held. But I was tired, listless and losing enthusiasm at a rate of knots. Where previously I would have eagerly bought my ticket, a guide book and enjoyed a selfish afternoon, immersed in culture, language and history, all I could do was stare at the beauty of the place…and feel nothing. I felt ashamed that I felt nothing. As though I was incapable of appreciating the fine architecture. I apologised to Avignon. It wasn’t its fault, it was mine.
My final meal in France was in a delightful restaurant where I ate all manner of fishy things and met a wonderful waitress called Adele (with an accent over the first e). She sensed my loneliness and pepped me up with funny stories, her own dreams of travelling to England and how she had had a row with her boyfriend the night before. My impending misery dissipated for a while… along with a few glasses of rose and a beer.
I sat and watched the world go by. I watched families, couples, children, all strolling in front of me, lost in their own worlds. I wondered what problems they were facing, what issues were going on in their lives. I spotted a little girl, engrossed in a cartoon artist’s work, innocent of the knowledge of future sadnesses that she was to face. I wanted to reach out to each and every one of them. To tell them that I was alone, and ask them if they would just hug me. And I’m sure if I had, I would have received what I was aching for… but we don’t do things like that, do we? I had skin hunger. An overwhelming need to communicate intimately with someone who knew me, loved me, cared about me…
I was beginning to use alcohol as an anti depressant – never a good sign, since I get high on life. And drinking is totally useless on a driving holiday. I awoke the next morning, with a headache and heartache. My next journey was to be onwards to Arles, where Van Gogh lived and stayed in the psychiatric hospital for a while. This was becoming a little too close for comfort.
I had 4 days of my journey left, and approximately 1000km. I sat in my hotel room and despaired at my inability to carry on. My weakness for letting the clouds build up and my overwhelming feelings of isolation. I rang my friend. He said “Come home”. It was all I needed to hear… Van who?
I had reservations about coming to Marseille to be honest. It seems to be a real mixed bag down here. There are some dodgy areas to be sure. I guess every large city has them whether they’re in the south of France or not. But I’d seen the French Connection, and heard about its ancient history and was curious.
By now I was on day 14 of my 21 day road tour around France, and fatigue was setting in. Because I’m only staying in a place for 2-3 nights maximum it can be difficult to make connections, and it’s also tiring. The same conversation about myself. People are very curious about this solo, female traveller with appalling French. But they are curious in a nice way and I have had the most wonderful reception from the people here. Do try to speak some French, it gets you a long way and then most people speak a little English so you can have a decent conversation.
Anyway, onwards 2.5 hours from Nice towards Marseille. I stayed at the Belle Vue Hotel which overlooks the old port and is a wonderful place to people watch. Don’t expect luxury but the rooms all have a wonderful view, which is what you pay for. Having said that, they are clean, the staff are very friendly and there is a wonderful bar where, if you’re lucky (and I have been, twice so far) you can get a balcony table and watch the world go by. Breakfast is E10 and a good, traditional, continental fayre. Definitely worth a look.
I love Marseille. It’s a place where you can see people from every corner of the globe. There were jazz musicians playing next to African musicians; the smell of all of the different types of food was mouth watering.
When I’m on the coast, I eat fish. What better food to eat than one which has made it from ocean to table within a few hours? Solo dining in France is easy peasy. It’s tourists that seem to have a problem with it. I enjoyed countless numbers of lunches and dinners with only my fellow waiters/waitresses for company. It’s a great opportunity to try out your French, (I speak French, they speak English, that way we both get to practice), and waiting staff are the perfect people from whom to extract local knowledge about where to go, where not to go, and where to get the best deals. Try it. They won’t bite. And you might even get an extra sneaky glass of wine if you smile sweetly enough… 🙂
On the subject of dining for one… some rules:
1. The view. Get a table with a view. Preferably in a piazza, plaza or somewhere where people and the world wander by. You’ll have no need to open that book that you’ve brought along with you.
2. Friendly waiting staff. They will entertain you, treat you and if you’re lucky, take a great photo of you with yet another glass of wine and cigarette…
3. Eat early. By early, I mean around 7 ish. The restaurant will be quite empty and you will have the pick of the tables. Also, you are unlikely to annoy the maitre d’ with your insistence on having the premier table in the restaurant…by yourself…for the whole evening.
4. Dress nicely. The maitre d’ is likely to enjoy having you sit in prime position in his restaurant as you make it look good. They don’t underestimate the value of having good looking customers sitting at their tables, so take advantage.
Marseille is a cosmopolitan melting pot. Economic conditions and political unrest in Europe and the rest of the world brought several waves of immigrants during the 20th century: Greeks and Italians started arriving at the end of the 19th century and in the first half of the 20th century, up to 40% of the city’s population was of Italian origin;Russians in 1917; Armenians in 1915 and 1923; Vietnamese in the 1920s, 1954 and after 1975; Corsicans during the 1920s and 1930s; Spanish after 1936; North Africans in the inter-war period ; Sub-saharan Africans after 1945; the pieds-noirs from the former French Algeria in 1962; and then from Comoros In 2006, it was reported that 70,000 city residents were considered to be of Maghrebian origin, mostly from Algeria. The second largest group in Marseille in terms of single nationalities were from the Comoros, amounting to some 45,000 people. Souks jostle for position next to huge Cathedrals topped with golden statues of the Virgin.
A wonderful place to sit and watch life go by. As in any place, just hang onto your wallet…
Today I took a boat to the Island where Chateau D’If is located. It was Marseille’s equivalent of Alcatraz and where the political prisoners were taken during the Napoleonic times. It’s also where they threw 3,500 Protestants (Huguenots) in gaol.
Chateau D’If is also the setting for the fictional novel by political writer Alexandre Dumas, “The Count of Monte Cristo”. Edmund Dantes is put in gaol for crimes he didn’t commit and spends many years at Chateau D’If. In the same way that people think that Sherlock Holmes existed, they generally believe that Dantes did actually become a prisoner here. It is also supposedly the place where the Man in the Iron Mask was imprisoned. Both fictional characters however there were many political and religious people who were sentenced to stay here, and died before their release. It’s well worth the boat trip to visit and see the graffiti left by prisoners as well as the cells:
By the way…Did you know…. the French national anthem stems from a song that a group of Marseille revolutionaries, who walked to Paris, sang during the road. The song became know as the Marseillaise and became the anthem. There you go…. 🙂
I had to begin my post about Nice and the French Riviera with this delightful song, which always makes me think of the south of France…
Travelling solo can be tricky, especially when you only stay one or two nights in each place. It’s more difficult to form connections with people as it takes a while to get your bearings and confidence. That’s when organised outings can be useful.
So, I met JJ in Monaco, when I went for my little ride in the little red car. He actually lives in Nice which was my next port of call and so we arranged to meet up this morning, for coffee (cigarettes obligatory), at Wayne’s Bar (www.waynes.fr), his local and the place to go if you want to converse in English…
The great thing about meeting local people is that they can give you local knowledge. I expressed an interest in spending the day at the beach but wasn’t overly enamoured with Nice. It’s nice … if you like tourists, gift shops and souvenir shops. However the shops are open all day long , which can be a relief after my failing to remember on each occasion that France closes at 12pm for lunch…until 3 or 4pm…
So I was recommended a place called Juan Les Pines… a 20 or so minutes train ride between Nice and Cannes. I could have driven but was told the parking would be horrendous…which was absolutely right. So, in my bestest (which is diabolical) French, I found the tram to the train station and then the train to Juan Les Pines.
And I did it. I have to admit feeling a sense of pride when I actually found myself at the beach (sand, Nice is pebble), with a baguette and a coke, sunbathing with all of my clothes on. Because you see, my skin hates the sun. Thanks to my Irish heritage, I break out in hives and a curious lobster like complexion if I don’t apply Factor 500 and wear the equivalent of a bed sheet on the beach. Which generated more than a few curious stares from onlookers – all French – all gorgeous (not many chip butties are eaten in these parts) and all bronzed. Not to mention the fact that I was a female, alone
If you want to be a female solo traveller…get used to being looked at. Not out of any animosity, just total curiosity. But there’s no hiding the curiosity with French people. They will stand and gawp at you quite openly. I ‘m surprised I haven’t been carried off to the local zoo at an exhibit…
My last night in Nice was great fun. JJ introduced me to his wonderful daughter Leia and in turn, I was introduced to some great (if a little crazy!) guys at Wayne’s bar. Do go here for a drink. It’s good fun (can be loud after 10pm) and it’s an English speaking bar so you can seek out people to talk to when you have tired of conjugating the past tense in French. The beer gives you courage to have a joke but please be prepared to explain yourself – British humour is different and we tease an awful lot (well, I do anyway). People can take us literally. I tell people that if I am smiling when I say something then I am joking. Then they will do the same thing with you! Just don’t get too drunk otherwise you put yourself in a vulnerable situation, which is very easy to do…
I do like a bit of art. No, honest, I do. I don’t know why. My daughter is an Art/Art History student so I guess having all that arty farty stuff around has been rubbing off on me for the past couple of years.
Art was the raison d’etre of my first visit to Florence (not, I have to admit though, the subsequent ones…which were more about using my own imagination with a certain local chef…)
I thoroughly recommend using guided tours if: 1. You are a solo traveller ( a great way to meet like minded people in a safe and public environment) and 2. You have, like me, no idea what you are looking at.
Guided tours, such as those arranged by http://www.viator.com are the perfect way to really get to know about a specific type of art. The guides are experts in their own fields and have a passion for passing on this knowledge to others. I always try to use one when attending a gallery. However, none were available for the artists that I have seen in Nice (Matisse and Chagall) and Antibes (Picasso), so I had to rely on what I had learnt on previous tours, and the amazing information that I have gleaned from daughter no. 2 over the past couple of years.
It is said that artists come to the South of France for the light, and then stay. Well, I’m totally with them on that one. Today I understood why it’s called the Cote D’Azur. The brilliance of the colours is astonishing. It has to be seen to be believed, no photograph can do it justice. I’ve visited quite a few places over the years, on the Mediterranean but none have provided the startling clarity of light. It’s as though God’s passed a j cloth and some Windolene over the whole place so that it sparkles. The blues of the sea and the sky are enchanting. Do go. You’ll love it.
Anyhow, back to being arty farty. For an unquiet mind such as my own, art provides tranquility. Don’t ask me how it does this. It just works. When the mind is restless, as mine is quite often, spending time in a calm, quiet environment, staring at stuff, trying to understand what the stuff is trying to say (if anything), seems to provide a perfect distraction. Yes, I know psychiatric units provide calm, quiet environments too but I’m trying to keep out of those…
So I found the Museum of Matisse in a little town just outside of Nice called Cimiez. And I got him. I just totally understood why he was such a genius (no, stay with me on this one, I’m not about to dig out my wimple and turn all Sister Wendy). I loved the way that I could see a bunch of squiggly lines on a white canvas and interpret it as someone dancing or someone happy. I loved the paintings with the colours that depict emotion. I didn’t need a book to tell me this. I just saw it. Maybe it’s a benefit of lithium?
When you’re alone, your train of thought is just your own. No one is around to make suggestions to you about what you are looking at, it’s just your own interpretation. And the great thing about art is that there’s no right or wrong answer so your opinions are as valid as anyone else’s. And I always like to be right.
And before anyone says it, yes, Matisse could paint properly!!!!
For me, the picture above has more expression than the one below, yet is much simpler. I like this idea. Cut the crap and get to the point. Works for me.
So I really liked Matisse, and I went to find him in the Cimiez cemetery to tell him so…
Feeling inspired and full of arty fartiness, I made a move down the hill back into Nice, to the Marc Chagall museum. When I later asked my new French chums if they’d visited either museum, they just looked at me and said “Non. We live here”, which I guess is true. When you live somewhere, you tend to leave the touristy stuff to, well, tourists.
Marc Chagall was a Russian Jew who moved to France when young. He painted a lot of weird stuff, like people with their heads off, walking on their hands, that kind of thing. And whilst I liked his paintings, I couldn’t help but think of the children’s classic cartoon, Mr Benn:
Perhaps I’m not such a good art critic, after all…
This road trip around France began as an act of defiance I guess. Have ferry ticket, car and 3 weeks to spare, will travel. It was also something of a challenge. Could little old me, all by myself, drive around France, going for weeks without any meaningful conversation, relying just on my own intuition and judgement…?
This morning I have a hangover from last night’s shenanigans with a great group of locals. So, naturally, I’m feeling a little delicate this morning. And the first thing to be affected is my Achilles heel – my mood.
Listless. Pinpricks behind the eyes. Desire to crawl back under the duvet. Being on the French Riviera, under the gaze of a beautiful sun has done little to shift this so far this morning.
It’s easy to carry on when life feels good, the emotions are in balance and positivity rules. The flip side is trying to wade through the treacle of life when the inclination is to let go and just drown into peaceful oblivion. Writing it down and acknowledging the feelings is a start. I always feel so guilty. I remember what the guys of the First World War battlefields went through, and my visit to the Somme and I’m ashamed to have so little to worry about and yet feel so angry. And resentful. And full of self pity. Because, you see, some great friends of mine are celebrating their 20th wedding anniversary today.
I’m here, in beautiful Nice, about to visit Antibes, a Picasso exhibition and then drive down to Marseille. In the glorious sunshine. I’m young(ish), intelligent(ish), independent with beautiful children and all that life has to offer before me. I’m not a girl, born into poverty in some appalling country torn apart with by famine or war. I should be happy. But I’m not. Because I see what Mr T. cannot see. I do things that he would love to do. And I want to do them with him. I would just do anything for him to be here. I miss him.