Stuart Paterson, blogging from Grez sur Loing: Tuned In.
Without wishing to sound like a Big Brother House inhabitant, I`ve been living at Hotel Chevillon for nigh on 3 weeks now. 3 weeks ago this coming Saturday, just after midday, I fell out of the Paris-Montargis train at Bouronne-Marlotte, completely unaware of what to expect, still a bit groggy from 3 days of travel & humphing a rucksack roughly the same size & shape as Stevenson`s donkey Modestine. I didn`t want to fly, since all it does is fill me with dread for weeks beforehand – the actual flight itself is usually an anti-climax lightened only by the knowledge that it`ll be over soon (though not unexpectedly soon, one hopes) & you`ll magically walk back out of the plane into a world completely different from the one you left a few hours before, like travelling in a Tardis with duty free & no leg room. I have to agree with Stevenson; it`s about the travelling itself, the getting there, the experience of the journey. Which is why I love going anywhere by train. You get to see where you are, how it changes, what awaits you. And you can take your own drink on a train. I also agree with RLS when he says that `There are no foreign lands. It is the traveller only who is foreign`. What a great way of looking at it, & just one more reason to love the heart & generosity of the man.
I`d been in Manchester from Wednesday until Friday morning, then trained it down to London to catch the Eurostar from St. Pancras to Gare du Nord. I`d decided I`d like a night in Paris before making my way 70km south to Grez-sur-Loing, to acclimatise myself a bit to France, get a bit of Parisian culture down my thrapple & have a night`s break from trains. This was both a wise &, in hindsight, slightly silly thing to have done. Wise, because I`d booked a hotel in Montmartre not too far from the stunning & imperious cathedral of Sacre-Coeur & the artists village up on the hill. Silly, because I`d booked the cheapest hotel I could find. Booking cheap accommodation is a good idea if you`ve been there before & know what to expect. Usually in the winter, in the likes of Oban or Mallaig, when tourists are scarce & room prices much lowered. But this was Paris. Hotel Bervic sits just off the intersection of two of the busiest boulevards not only in Paris but, I now believe, the whole world. This was the scuzzy end of Montmartre, the busy end, populated by the sort of desperate mix of cultures & people who probably look up the hill at Sacre-Coeur & sneer at its grandiloquence & beautiful appeal. To that end, I probably slept for a total of 4 hours, serenaded to sleep by the constant wail of sirens & car horns, gently awoken by the grunt & thunder of RER trains & early morning traffic jams. But only after tramping up the 200-odd steps to gawk at Sacre-Coeur like the rest of the heaving crowds at 9 at night, wander round the deserted village, look down on the brightly-patterned & vast tapestry that is a major city at night. By Saturday morning, I was frazzled in a way that only heaving cities can make you frazzled after you`ve lived in the middle of nowhere for the past 2 years, & really quite desperate to jump on the train south from Gare de Lyon. Did I mention that my room was up 6 flights of stairs? Just as well that I was carrying the donkey & not the donkey carrying me.
After negotiating the Metro to Gare de Lyon, a railway station which makes the Hampton Court Maze seem simple, I eventually got to Bourron-Marlotte after an hour travelling mainly through forest & town. The director of Hotel Chevillon picked me up & brought me the 2 miles to Grez-sur-Loing. She is Bernadette Plissart, employed by the Stiftelson Foundation to oversee the running of the place, & a lovely little bird of a woman, a curious & engaging mixture of charm & slightly baffled professionalism. The village itself, while only a surprisingly short walk from a major trunk road, was as picturesque as the photos had suggested, I`d walked its streets on Google Earth, but you can`t go for a pint or talk to local cats on Google Earth. It`s a village but was previously designated a town, the French equivalent of our royal burghs, centuries ago. There`s the 12th century Tour de Ganne, the 17th century bridge at the bottom of the garden, a plethora of streets named for writers & artists from around the globe who lived, worked & visited here over the past two centuries, an ancient church, a superb boulangerie & the surreal experience that is Le Bar Relais, run by Ernesto Fawlty & where RLS drinks to this day. (Don`t let the fact that his name is Gilles & that he`s a mushroom picker fool you by the way. It didn`t fool me for a second.) Like RLS, I`m now almost a regular, & am greeted with handshakes & a muted expectation that I`ll pay 10 Euros for a large measure of the Lagavullin which Ernesto keeps out on display like the mounted head of a 16-pointer. He`s started giving me free shots just to encourage me, so I`ll play that one out for as long as I can.
My apartment, first floor.
Hotel Chevillon itself was built in 1860 & served as one of the village`s coaching houses until the early 20th century, when it eventually fell into disrepair & decrepitude. It ended up being used as a store house until it was rescued by the Stiftelson Foundation in the early `90s, & re-opened in 1993 as a retreat for artists & writers of all persuasions. They`ve done a bob-on job of restoring it too, a mixture of preserved features, including the original hall stairway, with modern comforts. My apartment has a bedroom, sitting room & shower room, with a view onto the garden & the river. It`s cosy without being over-modernised. You always get a feel of the age & atmosphere of the place throughout the building & its grounds. There`s a reasonably large library too, filled with mainly Scandinavian books, although there`s a small Scottish section. I came across books donated by Louise Welsh & Jules Horne, & even found myself in a New Writing Scotland from years back. Yesterday, in the sitting room, I found a German bible printed in 1703, & the walls are covered in paintings by famous Swedish & Finnish artists. At least I assume they`re famous & I assume they were here at some point. Stevenson was strangely absent, except in the library, so I`ve donated my framed print & RLS now stands in miniature in the sitting room gazing out benignly from behind a fruit bowl. If you`re ever here, pop in & say hello to him. Either here or at the bar, of course.
The first week & a half were spent soaking it up, having Cheryl over for a marvellous few days, travelling about to Fontainebleau, Paris, Auxerre, the beautiful local villages. Writing was always my intention, especially writing something for RLS`s birthday on the 13th, & I felt as if fragmented bits of poem were germinating away in the back of my mind, little wisps of rhyme & line, hints of bigger things, not yet quite ready to show themselves. And now they`re beginning to appear & I`m glad about that. It took 10 days to tune in, turn in & try not to drop out & now there feels like some sense of belonging, of not being foreign. I`ve been walking around the local area in both village & woods, round lakes & parks, popping into the odd bar & getting caught up in the odd game of boules. And at night, with no TV or traffic or trains, it`s nice to sit with the other residents, drink wine, marvel at the brief & pleasing intersections of lives brought together by art & writing & humanity. And then to go upstairs, open the window, listen to the night & get lost in what it means to really be here.
It’s long after midnight, co!d, damp,
French fog slinking up from the Loing
With shrugged wet shoulders
And I have cheap red wine, an old baguette,
Stringy Dutch tobacco & the internet.
The lights in the other rooms are out.
Their inhabitants aren’t Scottish,
They’re sensible & wouldn’t stay up late
To muse on evocative fog, nibble gingerly
On back-fridge Brie & how the ducks
Sound on the river at half past 3.
They aren’t Scottish, wouldn’t understand
That awful need to be awake when
Everyone & everything the world
Over’s far beyond the pale of history
This section: Poetry, Stuart Paterson: Writer's Blog, Travel
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- Poetry by Hafsah Bashir
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- Kayus Bankole & Kei Miller: Edinburgh Book Festival
- Day Away on Scottish Ferries
- Glasgow Walk: Maryhill, The Venice of the North by Ian R. Mitchell
- Ghazal: the phone – poem by Rizwan Akhtar
- In Times of Self-Isolation poem by Rizwan Akhtar
- Corona Virus Stew – poem by Leela Soma
- Wullie Davidson Bus Pass Ramblings: Glasgow – Inverness – Fort William
- Return to Tuscany 2019