Tuesday, 11 June 2013


I belong, I admit, to that enormous throng of older women who adore Rafael Nadal not only for his prowess on the tennis court but for what seems extraordinary sweetness alongside his angry-looking facial expressions while playing to win... And indeed, he did win, his 8th French Open title, on Sunday, breaking records and still managing to look slightly surprised and grateful as he took the trophy. Okay, I know I sound star-struck.... so let me explain... The first time he won the French Open, in 2005, he was only 19, still very much a boy.... I happened to be stuck in bed, unable to move much after some neurosurgery in the Clinique Millinaire in Montpellier... but a kindly nurse turned on the television set above me, and I began watching tennis with an interest I'd never had before. It was "something to do", after all. The match on that particular Sunday, when Nadal first won, was quite exciting as I recall, but that's not what has made me his loyal fan ever since. When that boy realized that he'd won, he tore across the court, leapt the barrier, and embraced his mother (then Uncle Tony, his coach). His mother! A boy who loves his mother... that's my Rafa. I'm a fan.

Now, on to other more serious matters, such as how beautiful France is this time of year...Nantes was impressive and it was easy to gain access to a real sense of historical time while walking the streets and visiting the churches and museums. But for pure pleasure, give me a seaport town.... My stay in La Rochelle was entirely satisfying -- for one thing, the rain had stopped -- even though all the museums and churches I had intended to see were closed for one reason or another (Monday is never a good day for public monuments in France.) I didn't really care, I just walked and walked and walked and every so often came back to the harbour for a coffee or a bite to eat. I suppose in one way the following photo shows a world in which the rich hold the power -- count the sailboats and multiply by thousands of euros -- and one could view it with some anger at social injustice. But oh my, isn't it a pretty scene?

From this port, thousands of French citizens began their immigration to Canada, some for reasons of religion and others simply in order to begin a new life in a new country
After La Rochelle, I drove down toward Bordeaux through flatland close to the sea that is as different from where I live as day from night or chalk from cheese... But that's true every few hours in France, you seem to be entering another region that has its own identity through geography, architecture, history, food.... Everywhere, however, I was struck by the woods and forests -- France is well treed in spite of having been cleared for farming practices over many centuries. I think I must have counted fifty shades of green on my way into the Dordogne, an area famous for its beauty (and for the overlay of English ex-pats who now live there, so many that it is known as "little England" and this is not necessarily said in complimentary tones).

Not too far from city of Bordeaux lies the place I have long wanted to visit:  the Chateau de Montaigne, which has been rebuilt since the 16th century when Michel Eyquem de Montaigne lived there but which has incorporated the actual tower in which he cogitated and then wrote his "essais", and is now a museum dedicated to his memory. For many years I have kept the book of his essays by my bedside, and he continues to inspire and educate and delight me with his wit and grace and endless curiosity about himself and about life around him. All set for a great sentimental moment, already harkening back in memory to a visit I made many years ago to Yeats' Tower (Ballylee) near Gort, in Ireland and I was vastly disappointed to discover the Chateau closed to visitors (Tuesdays as well as Mondays).  Out of frustration and to prove to myself that at least I had tried, I took a photo of this memorial to Montaigne in the village.

 It's true, I have strange heros..French essayists and Spanish tennis players
  If you haven't read Montaigne's essays -- or even if you have -- you should have a look at a recent book called HOW TO LIVE: A LIFE OF MONTAIGNE by the British writer Sarah Bakewell. Aiming to live well -- who can quarrel with that as an ideal to follow?

For me, living well means having a walk every day if I can -- not too crazy about cold wind and rain, that'll keep me in by the fire, but if it's fair, walking is the best way to feel entirely human, one's mind kept turning over by thoughts as one's body is moving through space... As I earlier mentioned, I was impressed by the abundance of trees I saw everywhere in my travels, and none more lovely that in the Dordogne where I stayed overnight with friends, Dorothy & Peter, who are renting a country cottage for a few weeks. Dorothy and I took a perfect 5k stroll through flower-bedecked pastures and shady green forests, an extra pleasure for me to be in the company of deciduous trees so like those with which I grew up...  I could almost imagine I was back home in a maple bush.

Heaven. Pure and simple.