Saturday, September 26, 2015

Temps perdu

One summer, in the 1970s, we nearly moved to France. A friend of my parents, Paul Brown (catchphrase: "how extraordinary!"), had bought a ruined château, Château d'Usson, in the Pyrenees, and fancied - and it does seem fanciful - that he would restore the château and start an artists' community there, with my parents as the first artists.

We travelled to France in the car, with a clandestine £400 of Paul's money hidden in the glove compartment, it being forbidden at that time to take such large sums of money across borders. I'd just read The Silver Sword and this gave me terrifying visions of arrest and incarceration for breaking the law. Then we spent a hot, beautiful summer there, camping on the hillside, which was long enough for my parents to realise that the enterprise was doomed, and for us to learn about blueberries and lizards, and to meet the locals who must have regarded us with considerable suspicion, but who seemed friendly, especially an old man who drove an ox-cart; and to build, with Sije (Paul's girlfriend, an energetic Dutchwoman much younger than him), a house made of grass sods - which once built crawled with ants and was uninhabitable.

Paul's utopian dream never came together and not long after we left at the end of that summer, he split with Sije and moved back to the UK to a converted mill in Yorkshire near Aysgarth Falls. The château is still described as ruined: clearly nothing was ever built there. Even though this experience was, at the time, overlaid with a fear of the unknown and of the sheer recklessness of the idea of leaving everything behind to live in France, it remains in my memory as an idyllic, happy summer.

John Wyndham wrote a short story, Random Quest, about a parallel universe created by a science experiment where the world has diverged and certain things that happened in one universe never happened in the other. Remembering Château d' Usson, a place that looms large in my memories of my childhood,  I think of myself in the parallel universe where my parents stayed at the end of the summer and we went to local schools and became, essentially, French. I'm still living in the mountains with dozens of children and my skin is as brown and wrinkled as a walnut.


Marg said...

Ah yes, i remember it well. It seems astonishing, now, to recall that we drove all that way from Scotland with 3 young children ("are we there yet?") and no money. Random memories; discovering that raw garlic was a cure for worms, finding an old coffee-grinder in the only remotely habitable bit of the castle, going a walk even higher with Sitje (Sp?) to pick blueberries. And the old guy with the ox-cart. So glad it's a truly happy memory for you!

Claire said...

Me too, though I take issue with your depiction of yourself as wrinkled as a berry. You'd be French, remember? Therefore you'd have sun sense and a range of potions to apply to your face daily. And weren't they blackberries, not blueberries?

Marg, it may have been arduous for you and Chris, but it was magical for us children. It's the way happy childhood memories are created (which I've had to remind myself often when I've gone way out of my comfort zone to do something for the Peas).

Claire said...

Oh, and I remember seeing a snake for the first time (or at least, the first time outside of a zoo).

Claire said...

I'm enjoying the "I'm not a robot" test. The previous one was "Click on all the pictures containing eggs."

neil creighton said...

Lovely story. I remember enjoying the silver sword. Glad you didn't go to live there though. Our paths would then have almost certainly never crossed.