For I smell of the earth and am worn by the weather…

These beautiful Roscommon creatures were just so chilled. I couldn’t fit them in my car unfortunately…

 

I knew I was home the moment my little car drove me from Strokestown in County Roscommon to the wild lands of North West County Mayo. It was the smell.

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From Roscommon up to Lough Conn, and 2 entirely different geographies…

 

Smell is extremely important to me. I’ve spoken before about the wild garlic of Northern French hedgerows and the assault of chemical perfumery in the duty free shops at airports. I also get olfactory hallucinations- I smell scents that aren’t there- as one of my symptoms of manic depression. My nose provides cues for safety, danger and remembrances of things past.

The north west of Roscommon was turned over from potato fields in the 1840’s to the more prosperous pasture land for dairy herds. This was another reason for the eviction of masses of people who emigrated either to Canada, the USA or Britain.

 

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Strokestown land and lough.
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No sign remains of my family in these fields in Roscommon, but driving through them I was able to imagine the men, women and children, working the land in all weathers…

 

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A remarkable find… this was worn over the soft shoe protect the foot as it pushed the spade into the peaty earth, hour after hour, day after day…
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Often the men left the family for periods of time, migrating to Scotland for seasonal work. Irish families were matriarchal. And the women worked as hard as the men…

 

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I took this photo in the deserted village of Slievemore, on Achill Island, County Mayo. Here can be seen clearly, remains of the “lazy bed” potato fields and a thrilling glimpse into the past life of my family.

 

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Roscommon and Mayo are full of abandoned farm houses…indicative of the mass emigration over the past 200 years…
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Nephin in the background. Potato cultivation was thrown over for pasture farming…and with it went centuries of subsistence farming and thousands of people.

 

I drove 2 hours from the Strokestown Famine Museum up to Crossmolina. I chose the minor roads in order to take in the beauty of the countryside.

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County Mayo has a Brontesque quality to it… I was almost tempted into a bodice and corset…
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The colours of June in Ireland are staggering and a photographer’s dream

 

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It took much longer to complete my journey due to all the beautiful places I stopped to photograph…

 

The north west pastures of Roscommon suddenly become the wilderness  of County Mayo. And the smell. It was a rich smell of soil, stirred up by a recent rainfall and warmed by the sun. A heady, heavy scent of earth, grass and wild flower bloom. Of cows and manure and mould. A smell I wanted to lie down in and sleep forever. And of course it made me think of Mr T.

Seven years have passed since I laid my beautiful husband in the ground. He will now be a part of the land of Sherwood Forest in Nottinghamshire. An English man from birth to death. To this day I miss burrowing my nose into his warm, musky armpits whenever I felt anxious in the night. It was my safe place.

And I wondered how many people lay underneath the land on which I was walking. Those who fell foul of the hunger, those who weren’t lucky enough to be able to get away. And I wondered if their bones were adding to the thick, rich, dark dank odour of the Irish peat, reminding me that I too, one day, will be a part of this land. Because it was at that point that I decided I need to complete the family circle. One day I will come home.

 


 

There is no doubt that, travelling alone across this land of my fathers, my connection to the land was cemented. I felt the spirit of my forefathers and their strength and determination to survive. The pull that I have always felt, to return to the motherland was not satiated. Rather, it became stronger as I drove from townland to townland, each recorded in church parish records, with details of my ancestors.

Nothing remains of their homelands. No cabin nor caravan. Just beautiful, rich land. And it’s difficult to imagine the vast numbers of people who lived and died in these counties.

 

 

In 1841 the population of Mayo was 388,847, by 1851 it had fallen to 274,830; the number of homes in the county had fallen from 70,542 to 49,073 in the same period. Within 10 years the numbers of families halved.

The same happened in Roscommon. West Roscommon lost approximately 60% of its population in ten years, between 1841 and 1851. East Roscommon experienced less of a population decline however and I wonder whether this explains why the McCarthy’s were able to continue living in the area until the mid 20th century. It is clear however that the Clarkes were caught up heavily in the Great Hunger diaspora. I have only details of the three Clarke cousins surviving the famine. I have no records of what happened to the rest of the family. I fear the worst.


If you go to West Ireland, go in June. And leave the car behind, and preferably any friends and relatives. Go in June and go alone. Fully embrace the sounds and smells of a land virtually unchanged since pre-medieval times. A land rich saturated with colour and perfume, beauty and the most awful tragedy.  A sublime land of glorious landscape and pitiful sorrow. A land from which I defy anybody to emerge unmoved and unchanged. A land I’m proud to call my motherland.

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Country roads, take me home…to Ireland

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.

 

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Whatever is Great Grandfather smoking in that pipe of his?

 

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.

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Bit of cultural appropriation here Cher..?

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…

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Have backpack, will wander

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rage, rage against…everything

 

When Mr T died, I made it my mission to become an A grade widow. I have always dealt with “stuff” in a practical way. I’ve passed every exam I’ve ever sat, got every job I’ve ever been interviewed for. Surely there would be a book or a website that would tell me what I needed to do, in 5 easy steps. Once I passed the “widow” exams,  my heart would stop breaking, my stomach would stop churning, my neck would stop aching and the fear of everything would go away.

The only books that I could find contained guides to law, finance, practical housekeeping (I seem to remember reading about ensuring that I made delicious, nutritious soups to freeze, ready to eat on the days I felt unwell. Soup? Food? Freezing bags? The only thing I prepared in advance for the shit days was a constant supply of cigarettes and a barrel full of sherry. God knows why sherry. I hate the stuff but it seemed to be the only thing in the house, it being Christmas and all) and, eventually, dating again. “Don’t compare your date with your husband.” LOL. They didn’t tell you how to get through the long, lonely hours of the night, when the bed’s too big. They didn’t advise on what to do when the yearning came to lay on his grave (as I did one night), or dig him up for one last hug ( I actually asked if I had the legal right to do this. “No”, was the unsurprising answer).

 

They also didn’t touch on  how to deal with the “skin hunger”, a phrase which I came across on Google, to explain the need for intimate physical contact with someone. Anyone who could love me the way that Mr T did. I stalked people on internet dating sites and eyed up anyone new who came into the bar. I wore a huge hat with “I’m a sad, desperate, lonely widow who’s going mad, please fuck me”. No one offered (possibly the frog eyes, fag breath and drunken slur put people off. Possibly the fact that they cared enough about me not to take advantage of me). I made the bit up about the hat but I might as well have worn it, I was so obviously needy.

 

Yoga, exercise, meals out with friends, worthwhile causes were all suggested as ways of getting through the day. Which all sounds well and good when you’re not actually trying to get through the day. I was rigid with fear and pain. I couldn’t even be bothered to open my eyes. I lay on the bed and existed.

My wonderful friends adopted me and my girls and literally dragged me out of my bed, poured bottles of wine down my neck and rocked me until my sobs subsided with exhaustion. We were all exhausted.

Finally, the books didn’t explain the extreme self- centredness that would come with this horrible new world; one in which I couldn’t communicate with my children, let alone help them to deal with their grief.  On top of my own grief, I felt remorse, sorrow and guilt at my inability to deal with anyone else’s pain. I turned into a selfish, self loathing individual. I stared for days out of the window. I drank anything I could get my hands on, smoked everything that would light and wailed. Above all else I no longer wanted to be here. I resented my children for keeping me on the planet . They were going through important exams at the time. Did I care? Did I fuck.

I can recommend “A Grief Observed” by C S Lewis as being the closest I ever came to relating to someone’s reactions to the death of a spouse.  He never got over the loss of his wife. His emotions were raw, ugly and irrational. How anyone carries on with their normal jobs and their normal lives after such an event is beyond me. I knew from the moment my husband died in my arms that I was never going to “get over it”. I couldn’t be the demure, majestic Jackie Kennedy. I was snotty, spotty and a bore. I knew it and couldn’t get out of it.

My husband was dead and so was my life. It’s difficult to write without using the usual cliches about losing a half of you, feeling like you’re free falling, having a limb amputated but all of these and more are true. The grief that I felt was indescribable but – annoyingly- completely normal. No matter what books I consulted about bereavement, widowhood, grief, I couldn’t get around the fact that my feelings were totally normal. GP visit? “It’s perfectly normal for you to feel this way”. Bereavement counsellor: “You must get out more. Try going back to work, get some routine back into your life”. Surely my grief was the greatest griefs of all griefs that have ever been felt. Noone could possibly have gone through this living hell in the way that I was? It hurt to realise that I was just one of many who were grieving for someone or something, and that everything I was feeling was “normal”. “Sorry Mrs T but you’re no one special. Yes we understand your husband’s dead but that’s life”.   I read the posts of optimism and hope that people posted on my fb page and I tried. I really tried. But my soul was lost. Nothing mattered anymore.

I felt detached from the world. I watched cars go by when I was queuing for traffic and hated the fact that, for these people, normal life was carrying on. I listened to conversations on the bus as I went to register his death – in particular a conversation between two elderly ladies who religiously analysed the funeral that they had been to the day before “It was a lovely do but I didn’t like all that chicken stuff. I don’t like eating with my fingers. They needed knives and forks”.  I wanted to scream at them: “My husband is dead! Fuck the fucking chicken!”

When I got into town to register my husband’s death, I had to run the gauntlet of “chuggers”. Lovely bunch of guys; I’m sure on any other day I’d smile and maybe even donate. But on this day, I kept my head down and ploughed through. It was Christmas 2011. The Christmas market was in full swing, people were present buying and a young guy approached me with his charity tin. “Hi madam, would you be interested in donating to…. (some charity, I forget). “No thanks”, I mutter, head down, no eye contact, desperate to escape to the sanctity of the register office where my marriage would officially end. “Why the long face, let’s see a smile”. “Well, I’m just off to register my husband’s death, so forgive me if I don’t smile” I spit at the poor unfortunate guy. I’m ashamed to say I felt glad to offload some of my anger at him. He’d done nothing wrong. I left his forlorn expression and marched off. My world was shattered and woe betide anyone who came near me with glad tidings of joy.

At the Register Office, I was met with the usual sympathetic words and kind acts from well meaning people. I read the Coroner’s report on the post mortem in silence. There was nothing wrong with Mr T. In fact, they had to do a second series of tests to try to find out what the hell he died from. Natural causes. And a propensity for the finer things in life: wine, cheese, me. “Have you any questions?” asked the kindly Registrar, after I’d filled her in with the details of my husband’s demise -“He just looked at me and died”. “Well, can I still say I’m married?” came my desperate question as I looked into her eyes. She leaned forward and sadly informed me that, as my husband had died, my marriage was now over and I was no longer a wife. I had fought for years to become my husband’s wife. It lasted five.

 

 

I’ve had enough…time to cut and run

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Ponte Vecchio in my widow’s weeds. And the beginnings of a change from dark to blonde hair.

My first experience of travelling solo came 6 months after my husband suddenly died. It was less of a rational decision and more of a subconscious uncontrollable urge to run away. The urge came on a Wednesday, built up through Thursday and by Saturday I was in Florence, Italy. By myself. In a country I didn’t know with a language that I didn’t speak.

I prepared well for the trip. I went to the hairdressers and dyed my hair blonde. I then rang my sister and told her the news. She was more shocked about the hair than the sudden trip to Florence. “Why?” she asked to both. “I just needed to” was my response. Lucky for her, I hadn’t done what I really wanted to do, which was to shave my head completely, in a outward display of the inner pain that I felt.

 

Anyway. Solo travel to Florence. Why Florence? Well, firstly it was a place that I hadn’t visited with Mr T so there weren’t going to be any memories. Keen to secure a First Class Honours in Widowhood, I had read and promptly acted on the idea that, to cure oneself of constant reminders of the past, it is necessary to create new memories. Secondly, it was a place to do things. I dreaded being alone and having nothing to do but stare at happy couples, in love, or even not in love. Everywhere I went, people were in couples. Meh…

Having a love of Art and Art History, I knew that if anywhere was going to soothe my aching soul it would be Florence, city of Renaissance Art and Architecture, where I could get lost in history, culture, anything. I also love Italian food so I knew I wouldn’t starve. It’s only 2 hours from home so it was practical, in case anything should happen at home and I needed to rush back. It was only 2 hours from home so that if I should have an attack of mad cow’s disease I could be returned back to my local psychiatric unit, which was keeping a close eye on me at this point due to my manic depression.

 

It wasn’t so much the practical issues of travel that concerned me. I was always the one to book the holidays, arrange the transfers and pack the cases. Solo travel meant being alone. Having no one to share my thoughts with. No one to enjoy a glass of cold wine or beer with. No one to share the joy of visiting places only previously seen in books or magazines. No one to say “I can’t believe I’m standing in front of ….” for the umpteenth time. Was it really going to help?

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Looking up for God in the Duomo… not finding Him. Feeling abandoned in the presence of serenity. A desperate feeling…

How does one travel alone without feeling isolation and like everyone is looking at you, feeling sorry for you and wondering just what you did that was so bad that no one would go on holiday with you? When I’ve spoken to people about solo travel, they tend to fall into one of two camps. There’s the “oh yeah, I do that/would love to do that”. Or, more often, there’s the “God, I couldn’t do that. What? Just you? No one else? I wouldn’t have the guts”. Is it guts or lack of choice? Or just a desire to be hidden amongst a multitude of people who didn’t know my story and frankly, didn’t care. I needed to escape the cloud of despair. I needed to forget what had happened for just a short time and be somewhere where no one knew Mr T. I seem to have been married to the most well known landlord in Britain.

 

It began that fateful night when the lovely police officer, whilst taking my statement, recognised my husband and  said “Is that Richard Taylor?” “Yeah”. “Blimey, I was only in the pub a week ago”. The following day I had a phone call from a local Funeral Director. “Hi Vickie, I don’t know if you remember me but it’s Debbie from the pub. You know, Gill’s friend”, “Hi”. “Er, I hope you don’t mind but the case came through about Richard and I wondered if you would like me to organise the funeral”. “I didn’t know you were a funeral director?” “Yes, would you mind?” “No, that’s a great idea”. Mr T was off to meet his maker with the help of a friend. What could be better?

 

Over the course of the next few weeks, I came into contact with: a random AA guy because my bloody car broke down (still in Mr T’s name) “Oh, I heard about Richard. Great guy, so sorry”. A taxi driver who happened to start a conversation as we drove past the pub that what was my home and now wasn’t (I moved out) – “Poor bloke had a heart attack”. “No he didn’t.” “Oh, how do you know?” “Because I’m his wife and I was there”. The teachers at my girls’ school knew what had happened before we had the chance to tell them – they used to have lunch every Friday in the pub.  My eldest daughter was having her hair cut at a local salon when one of the other customers started gossiping: “Richard from the Nurseryman had a heart attack and died” (No he bloody didn’t!) I couldn’t get away from him.

 

This still happens albeit on a less frequent basis. I learnt very quickly how much my husband was loved and respected. This had increased my anxiety about the funeral. What if people thought it was  rubbish? What if we forgot the cutlery and people had to pick up the chicken with their hands? By May I’d had enough. I was off.

Sorrow is the seventh wave…

 

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. It  slowly 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.

 

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I took this picture of myself and then promptly burst into tears….

 

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 how  people 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 cooperate  but 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 lunches  on the grass and enjoying the sun. For me, the sun will come out again and the wave will recede. Soon…

In France and wishing I could get that Bonnie Tyler song out of my head…

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Why a French road trip?

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? Mais non…

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

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I wasn’t feeling in the mood for dancing, despite the beauty of le pont d’Avignon.

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.

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Palais des Papes… Where I realised I’d had enough

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.

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Something fishy going on… and lurking under the white fish were 3 snails… chewy but delicious
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Adele my delightful waitress…
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Feigning happiness but feeling weary…

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…

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I was unsure about his artwork, however this little French girl seemed impressed… or maybe she was pointing out some home truths…

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?

Being arty farty… and as if by magic, the shopkeeper appeared…

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.

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No photoshop needed here at Antibes. No wonder Picasso stayed.

 

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?

 

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In my element. Art quietens my unquiet mind.

 

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.

 

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Matisse; expressing le joie de vivre with such simplicity. Alternatively entitled: Me, when I’m 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.

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yes, it’s an early Matisse.

 

So I really liked Matisse, and I went to find him in the Cimiez cemetery to tell him so…

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Matisse. A top bloke.

 

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:

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Marc Chagall
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Mr Benn at the Circus

 

Perhaps I’m not such a good art critic, after all…

You can’t always get what you want…

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My little Mini and I became great friends during our journey around France 🙂

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.

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Driving down to Antibes and through the Cote D’Azur

 

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.

 

Aint no mountain high enough, aint no tunnel long enough…

Yesterday I can safely say I became well acquainted with the ups and downs, the highs and lows of the French Alps.

To begin with, I was embarking on a simple little cruise on down from Grenoble to Monaco’s Monte Carlo. Around 450km. Pas de problem pour moi. I even stopped off en route to take in a jolly jaunt up the side of a mountain at Le Funiculaire de Saint Helene-du-Touvet. More of that later.

The weather was hot and sunny and my little black cloud of grief was doing its best to dissipate. The butterfly which fleetingly greeted me on my journey back down the mountain in the carriage had tried her best to reassure me that everything was going to be ok. That I would be ok. That the sick, empty, useless feeling would soon be over.

So I set the Sat Nav to my hotel destination in Monte Carlo, whacked up Led Zeppelin to full volume, ensured I had enough cigarettes and full fat Coke for the 5 hour trip (the time needed for 450km should have been clue enough about the future drive) and remembered to drive off in the right hand lane.

Bugger I forgot the petrol. Must learn to get my priorities in order…

What I hadn’t taken into account was the Alps. Well, I knew they were there. I just expected to…well…I don’t know really. I suppose I thought they would part miraculously, or there would be a magic button that I could press, to make them sink into the ground, Tracey Island fashion. What I hadn’t anticipated were two things: 1. That one can either drive over mountains. Or through them. Either way is a right royal pain, and 2. They dramatically alter the local meteorological climate. In fact, one is perpetually driving in cloud. For 200km. And if God really does sit on a cloud, then He needs some bloody good wellies. And a mac…

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It’s a bit drizzly…

 

I also hadn’t realised that, in order to tootle down to Monaco, I was going to have to go through Italy. Not that I have anything against the Italians. In fact if you read my previous posts on Florence, you’ll see that I have quite a fondness for them. But having to suddenly switch from speaking appalling French to speaking appalling Italian without as much as a sniff of barbed wire, passport control or scary looking Italian guards in rather too tight trousers was more than my wobbly head could cope with. I just stared in disbelief when a rather gorgeous looking ragazza (how do they manage to look so bloody stylish even when cooped up in a toll booth?) in a starched collared, nicely bust-darted blouse garbled something to me. Presumably it was “Good God woman, didn’t you bother to look at a topological map before you decided to embark on this crazy idea? Have you taken your meds today?” Yes I had, but it all seemed a very long time ago…

Anyhow, off I set. If you ever want to know how it feels to be a sewer rat,  and I’m sure you do, on a regular basis,  then go to Monaco via the French/Italian Alps. In, out, in, out, speed up, speed down (well, in the case of the Italian drivers, speed up, stay up…). Stop for the road toll on at least 10 occasions. Remember that you’re on the wrong bloody side of the car, so seat belt off, lean over, turn down Lenny Kravitz (Are you gonna go my way? Not if it involves mountains.  Not even for you, Mr Sex God). Peer up at scary looking Italian man (I’m in a Mini, he’s seated at the right hand of the Lord on his throne in his toll booth. Well I guess they have to be able to gesticulate wildly to lorry drivers too). And it’s pissing it down. Correction. It is torrential.

After 6 hours, 279 miles, countless tunnels, umpteen hairpin bend roads, aqua planing twice (not on a hairpin bend though, thankfully), watching 2 poor buggers being carted off in an ambulance (yes I did feel sorry for them in their road accident, even though it delayed me), 50 Hail Mary’s, God knows how many Our Fathers and a promise that if I ever did make it to Monte Carlo, I would never do this crazy trip again, I arrived at a lovely little hotel. Then I had to carry my backpack up 3 flights of stairs, after which I was nearly sick when I actually got into the room, so knackered, tired and hungry was I. Then, finally, city hotels rarely have their own car parks, so I had to go off and find one for Mini. And then walk back. at 11pm. In the dark. In a strange city.

Still, it took my mind off things.

 

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Morning greeted me with a clear head in Monte Carlo…