Things I`ve Learned In France, Stuart Paterson
There are no taxis in Fontainebleau
You gather a group of pals for a good night out in a local, buzzing tourist hotspot. Some pizza cooked in front you by a handlebar-moustachioed Italian lunatic, followed by a couple of top gigs (Cyrille Aimee & Les Doigts de l’Homme, since you asked) at a beautiful old theatre in the centre of town. The music`s scheduled to end around 11 and you note that the last bus home is at 10:45, but you think, hey, we’re in Fontainebleau, one of France’s most beautiful , most visited towns, we`ll forget the bus, stay on until the end of the gigs & then split four ways for a taxi. Because there’ll be taxis, there are bound to be taxis, it`s FONTAINEBLEAU. Right? Wrong. Out we bowled into the crisp French night, full of music & laughter & the joys of being in one of France`s heppest towns. We walked 200 yards to the taxi rank at 11:15. No taxis. We tried ringing the number on the sign. No reply, no taxis. We surveyed & scanned & searched the still-busy streets, but no taxis. We went to the reception of l`Hotel Napoleon to ask the receptionist to find us a taxi. The lad, bless him, tried for over an hour, tried every taxi firm within 20km. And – no taxis. It had gotten to the point where we’d dejectedly decided to try to hitch-hike the 10km to Grez, in two pairs. Thankfully, Finnish Rebekka, who speaks very little French, saved our collective pig flesh by approaching a man in a car park who spoke no English & somehow communicated to him, perhaps via the telepathic language of desperate terror, our plight. The poor bloke had just finished a 10 hour shift waiting in a restaurant & lived about 20km in the other direction, but he drove us to Grez, getting us there not long after 1am. He even tried to refuse the 30 Euros we stuffed in his hand. 30 Euros, the price of abject rubbishness at thinking to order a non-existent taxi earlier in the evening. Whoever, wherever you are, nice man from Montigny who smells of garlic and Lynx, our earnest thanks and undying love. You got us back just in time to have a much-needed beer at Le Bar Relais.
Except, of course, Le Bar Relais was shut. Thankfully, there was an employee inside sitting reading the Collected Poems of Pam Ayres, & who sold us 8 bottles of beer through the window because the owner had locked the door and gone to bed. I believe the picture I’ve inserted below shows just how much a beer or 8 can really mean to a Finnish artist in times of great stress & need. And that was before he’d even had a drop.
French ducks are different
They never shut up. Honestly, I’ve never heard such a loud and annoying bunch of water fowl since 10,000 Canada geese landed at Sandyhills 3 months ago and decided to do a vast group impression of a high speed train at 4 in the morning. But even they go quiet for most of the day. Here, the ducks are at it 24/7, grunting & screeching & moaning and mumping like a load of Jeremy Kyle guests at a Black Friday planning meeting. I can hear them now, through the closed window, honking & hollering away to their hearts’ content. I`ve no idea why. I tried asking them but I didn’t understand the reply, since my Fruck’s not really up to speed, & a couple of swans waded in asking us to keep the noise down.
There’s no Z in Grez-sur-Loing
After three weeks of chundering on to people about how I was living for a month at an artists’ retreat in Grez-sur-Loing, pronouncing the Z as in `Prez`, I was casually informed last night by a French expert in European dynastic history over a double J&B that the Z isn’t sounded and Grez is, in fact, pronounced ‘Greh’, like ‘Meh’ which is, I think, how most locals have responded to my attempts at light-hearted banter about 19th century Scandinavian painters and there many and varied japes here in Greh.
Just because you’re spending a month on an actual writing retreat……
You’ve got it. I would estimate my total writing time here to come in at around a day. That’s not counting the hours, possibly days, I’ve sat staring at a freshly opened Word document after typing in the first few lines of a new poem, then hit a mental road-block, then typed, erased, typed, erased, went out for a fag, come in, erased the lot, tried starting again, went away for a brew, come back, hit on a startlingly original new angle, sat back chuffed to bits, erased, went out to Cocci Market to buy wine, come back, closed the document without hitting ‘Save’, opened wine. The idea of coming to Greh was, of course, to focus on new work & to continue things previously begun. But I think there`s maybe some sort of inner pressure to produce, the atmosphere here being so relaxing and conducive to creativity, and of course the whole thing being paid for by the Scottish BOOK Trust in the name of one of the world`s greatest WRITERS. Well, I don’t know about other poets, but I can’t really work that way. I’m more likely to come up with a poem in the middle of chucking together a fry-up on a Sunday morning than I am while sitting by a languid river, under whispering larches, gazing soulfully into the mesmeric waters. Especially once the ducks sense what I`m up to.
The main impetus while here has been reportage, in prose (not usually my favoured medium), by way of blogs, and from that have come poems while kicking about ideas on the page or reflecting on what new absurdity the day’s thrown up. And there’s also been the occasion of RLS’s birthday falling during my time here, which caused me to do a lot of thinking on the man himself and his personality, his character & just how much he crammed into such an unfortunately short life. Overall, though, it’s been a time of immersion into another culture, where possible, another landscape, another language. Poetry is such that it rarely gives you a lot of warning before creeping up on you & smiting you with the proverbial sledgehammer, but that’s usually after the event, so I expect more than a few surprise attacks when I’ve returned to Scotland and cracking eggs on a Sunday morning. And, let me tell you, they’ll be duck eggs.
Living for a month with no TV is bliss
It is. It’s wonderful. No cathode distractions, no temptations to just watch any old guff for the sake of it, the reassuring cackle of capitalist crap in the corner while you…..who am I kidding? It isn’t bliss. It’s different, certainly. But I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t felt a pang of regret at not catching the final three episodes of Dr. Who, or missing the weekly visceral rollercoaster of The Walking Dead. Yes, I have these things, and one or two more, recorded for my return, but it’s not the same on catch-up, not the same anticipation of the weekly event of The Doc approaching or just a few hours to go until the big game or fights live on TV. I don’t actually watch that much telly while I’m at home admittedly, just my favourites, but I like having the option, and I guess that makes me just a wee bit of a saddo for even dwelling on this.
I regret that I couldn’t watch Alex Salmond’s last First Minister`s Questions live, too. He’s felt like a part of the emotional furniture these past couple of years and to only read about it on Facebook news feeds felt wrong. I should’ve been there, watching, waving him cheerio, cheering on Nicola Sturgeon as she gave her first cabinet announcements and re-invigorated a Yes campaign that had started to look a bit jaded after all the lies of The Vow started to become apparent. Only the moving image on the screen, the spoken live words, can really convey the importance of these things, short of actually being there of course. But it’s a small, almost painless price to pay for having the great good fortune to spend a whole month living in a place that no moving image on a screen could do real justice to. It feels like being in your own documentary, with a soundtrack of church bells, car tyres on cobbles, wings beating on water, the strange and lovely music of another language that you’ll never stop learning even when you can no longer hear it.
More tomorrow, maybe a poem or two. Hope you’ve enjoyed the reportage.
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