I thank you, my God, for having in a thousand different ways led my eyes to discover the immense simplicity of things. Little by little, through the irresistible development of those yearnings you implanted in me, as a child, through the influence of gifted friends who entered my life at certain moments to bring light and strength to my mind, and through the awakenings of spirit I owe to the successive initiations, gentle and terrible, which you caused me to undergo: through all these I have been brought to the point where I can no longer see anything, nor any longer breathe, outside that milieu in which all is made one.
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin
Hymn of the Universe
The last day of September. Contented and reflective. Quieter by far than the last few glad days in Paris. Never far from the river, I’ve lost count of the times I watched a leaf or a twig baptised into its flow.
Once connected to one branch and one tree. Now carried, moving onward in a larger universe. Then, a bud, a leaf or a twig, somewhere. Now, elsewhere. Matured and maturing still. Dying and living. Living and dying. Here. On the move. On the river. Higher, broader, deeper, wider.
Yes: as Teilhard before me, I notice ‘the immense simplicity of things’. Leaf and twig will die into that ‘milieu in which all is made one.’ And I recall another quiet moment, another leaf, another river.
Paris pulls most like a strong magnet on the mornings we have to leave. It’s irrational. We visited everywhere you could think of in forty eight hours but there’s always somewhere we desperately need to be right now. Right now, when the taxi’s outside waiting to whisk us back to Montparnasse! What is it about this huge, busy, noisy city that has such a hold on us?
Well: just about everything. Châtelet. The Louvre. Art nouveau Métropolitain. Buskers. The scent of brandy, good strong coffee, and cigarettes. Tiny bistros packed to the walls. Notre Dame. Rue du Rivoli. Apartment dwellers dining elegantly on tiny, chic, wrought iron balconies overlooking roof gardens. Stacked cases of wine – themselves works of dusty fine art. The tower, of course, and the intensity. Accomplished monocyclists, romance, and style. Visionaries and arty plans for the future. Bicyclettes and hundreds and hundreds of scooters.
Again and again though, it’s the most surprising things that are forever planted firmly in my heart and mind. Nowhere but Paris can a single, beautiful, fallen, golden leaf, fluttering gently in the breeze on the cobbles of the quay beside the Seine – nowhere but here could a man hear a leaf whispering ‘come again’.
Vers la gare Montparnasse s’il vous plaît monsieur. Merci beaucoup …
But three and a half hours later, fickle as they come, we’re newly in love, again, with that other, quieter, river.
Had the room only been quieter I might have heard Leonardo chatting with her, yet the throng of visitors from all over the world is something to be celebrated. We’ve come for face to face encounter today with a half-length portrait of a woman, by the Italian artist Leonardo da Vinci, which John Lichfield of The Independent acclaimed in 2005 as “the best known, the most visited, the most written about, the most sung about, the most parodied work of art in the world”.
The Mona Lisa, thought to be a portrait of Lisa Gherardini, the wife of Francesco del Giocondo, is in oil on a white Lombardy poplar panel, probably painted between 1503 and 1506. I wasn’t sure what I was expecting to feel when, awestruck by the ornate exterior and the interior galleries of the Louvre itself, (architecture, venerable and modern, spectacularly juxtaposed), and overwhelmed by the sheer number of famous works of art along the way, we joined hundreds in the Salle de La Joconde (as the painting is known to the French) this morning.
I know now. For no mere trifle is Leonardo da Vinci hailed the world over, more than 500 years after executing this work.
A small painting, Mona Lisa fills her huge ‘new’ home. While I have appreciated many great paintings, the works of Rembrandt touching something deep in me especially, and have seen many representations of the work through the years, this – the real one – is something different. Quite extraordinarily for a portrait of a person, rather than the person herself, I felt without a shadow of a doubt that La Joconde has tangible presence; she’s breathing. Leonardo must have been entranced by her beautiful hands. We need both to look and to listen.
Back down to earth, we hired a pair of Vélib’ bikes for another whirlwind tour of the great and beloved sights of the city, and for windinmywheels.
The TGV sped us out of Brittany for Paris this morning, our having first marvelled at the friendliness and service for breakfast at the SNCFGare d’Auray. The contrast between this city and the riverside we’ll return to on Thursday couldn’t be more marked. Quiet enough in the former to hear sparrows’ wings, in 1st Arrondisement Paris there’s a well trained choir of sirens, car horns and bicycle bells. Outdoor supper watching the world passing by on a warm Paris evening is intoxicating.
Now, just before midnight, there’s no sign of a quietening outside the window behind which we’re thankfully installed, exhausted feet wondering what the heck happened today. Ah, but that walk along the Seine, the avenues of autumn coloured trees, the photos outside Notre Dame, and the ultra fab Apple Store at Carrousel du Louvre. I’ll joyfully remember where I downloaded MacOS Sierra! After just a couple of hours in this thrumming city we’ve got the hang of the buzz and the speed of the place again already. And one or two (hundred) photos!
We delighted in our annual Tour de Golfe this afternoon. The Gulf of Morbihan, home to 42 islands, is a sailor’s delight. It’s also a joy for photographers like me, and perfect (windy!) sailing conditions allowed for some spectacular shots of a grand regatta featuring perhaps 50 boats – each with four or five crew – in full sail. Add to that some truly spectacular fluffy cloud formations set in heights of deep cerulean blue, cormorants close-up, the glad familiarity of another returning, the best company, and a baguette picnic made up of ham, paté and smoked cheese, and I reflect that the later colours of the day made for splendid array.
When we see that we live in a mind-made world and that we ourselves are of that same formless energy, the idea of having to do anything to experience peace of Mind is as bizarre as the idea that a fish would have to do something to experience water. When you start to notice that the peace of Mind is always present, it begins to fill your consciousness more and more of the time.
It’s still early. I’m just awake. First light’s broad brush strokes newly primed canvas. Cyclical colours of experience, light to dark, dark to light, as old as the aeons, never to be seen in quite the same way again – the spectrum of my next twenty four hours. And others will form yours, though we will swim in the same school, the same river, the same sea.
Our minds will shape for us what was, what is, what will be.
It’s still early. I’m just awake. Experience of the morning riverbank stirs quietly. Already my mind’s eye seeks shape, intent and purpose for the day but, being early, being only newly awake, no effort at all is required to gaze long upon a single oak leaf in the dawn-lit window. And just above the surface a small bird sings in perfect French. And so it will indeed be.
The American Indian poet Joy Harjo told Bill Moyers
I don’t see time as linear. I don’t see things as beginning or ending. A lot of people have a hard time understanding native people and native patience – they wonder why we aren’t out marching to accomplish something. There is no question that we have an incredible history, but I think to understand Indian people and the native mind you have to understand that we experience the world very differently. For us, there is not just this world, there’s also a layering of others. Time is not divided by minutes and hours, and everything has presence and meaning within this landscape of timelessness.
I’m presently in France, ambling this morning along a perfectly beautiful riverbank, loving the tranquil presence here of the cimetiere de bateaux de la rivière du Bono – in the quiet backwater where venerable painted-oak fishing boats have come to their rest and where, over years and years, their once bright colours fade as the waters cover the sea.
Here too along the riverbank are earthenware remains of the defunct oyster industry, closed in the 1980’s by a spell of river pollution. Morning dew shimmers on cobwebs in a gentle breeze. Sea birds shout with raucous authority. Petit dejeuner is laid ready at table. The sun is warm on my back, and is the gladness in the harbour. My heart is full of happy anticipation for the day.
This afternoon we cycled to the Basilica de Sainte Anne d’Auray, Phare spirituel de la Bretagne depuis 400 ans – (Spiritual Lighthouse of Brittany for 400 years), twenty years almost to the day since the late Pope St John Paul II arrived here. Ancient faith and art meets modernity here too. Craftsmen’s art in the great basilica, as in the modern boulangerie across the road.
This evening I reflect on these things, and upon many more, and recognise a timelessness, a great and awe-inspiring Patience, a vast and wonderful landscape, and have little or no need to be ‘out marching to accomplish something’. Bound to past, present and future undivided, I sense that I am – that we are – here or anywhere, home from home.
The oystercatcher furtling about in the mudbanks is silent and focused and the butterfly and the lizard make no sound that can be heard above the clank of mast cables and the gentle river flow beside which we’re absorbed in Ouest France and our books into which pine needles twirl – until the urgent tap-tap-tapping of the woodpecker we’d forgotten we met last year raises smiling pairs of eyebrows
We were crossing the Sound of Iona between Western Scotland’s Inner Hebridean islands of Mull and Iona – part of the Atlantic Ocean – just a little while ago, and marvelling at the ferry Loch Buie’s riding the strong current that seems set to impede her progress about half way across. I experience a little frisson of triumph whenever I see her safely arrived, either side.
And so it was again today, in Southern Brittany, during the five minute boat trip to the Île aux Moines (Isle of the Monks), the ‘pearl of the Gulf of Morbihan’. Surrounded by the Mare current, deemed to be the strongest in Europe, the little ferries do battle with the swirl dozens of times a day – something we’ve also experienced in kayaks when frisson doesn’t quite nail the encounter!
Explorers, we humans. And islands large and small have a voice that clearly beckons, no matter the waters.
We’ve cycled for miles again today. The new cycleways in Southern Brittany are superb, and real testament to the seriousness with which cycling and healthier living generally is taken here. We reckon that with judicious use of cycling panniers and baskets for regular shopping trips we could probably leave the car at home for all but the occasional ‘big shop’ or visits further afield. That adds up to an enjoyably healthy lifestyle – albeit that we succumbed a few years ago to the benefits and joys of modern e-bikes. Oh, the joy of that little angel at your back when faced with a long climb home!
There’s been time, too, for reading, a bit of painting, and considerable industry in the knitting department. Morbihan hasn’t seen much rain for months – not altogether great news for gardeners but appreciated by the holidaymakers who enjoy the many gorgeous beaches of the Golfe, the safe boating, the outdoor restaurants and – like us – simply sitting in a sunlit garden, appetites sated by good coffee, delicious bread with M. Daniel’s miel, glasses of jus de pomme, and slowing down awhile. September’s just right here. The colours are turning, scholars returning, and this riverside house so quiet and blissfully peaceful that we heard a tiny lizard before we saw him, scampering across scattered leaves. C’est une grande vie!
Despite my best annual efforts, my somewhat shy awkwardness and male Englishness cannot be disguised at the Monday morning marché – and not just by way of my poor linguistic grasp – no matter how much I long to blend, fluent and unnoticed, into the throng. It’s a native, culture thing, I think, with the French. The absolute confidence of being at home in oneself and in one’s own country. An easy knowing one’s way around. Ready expression of preference and the opposite. The street café as extension to one’s own home. The ability to smoke a cigarette, langorously, as though it were possessed of a thousand positive health-giving properties. The exquisite minuscule goût de café that chides the waxed cardboard pails that pale in comparison. The authenticity of the faded pink (1940s?) shorts and deep-tanned legs. No socks with sandals – without discomfort.
So Monday market here is both celebration of the all-things-French that I love, and mildly painful disorientation, a yearning perhaps, like the bewilderment of my first days at primary school long ago. Everything moves so fast. I’ve just worked out how to get into the saddle of the huge rocking horse and it’s time for warm milk (ugh) again. Just made friends with pretty Jayne Matthews and a harsh voice tells me I’m not concentrating – though I’m sure I was. And someone in a hurry pushes me over. Just got the globe spinning with a satisfactory hum and I’m told it’s supposed to be stationary while I look at a bit of it called China or something or other. It’s another world. And I want time to linger, invisible, quite uninterested in being ‘top of the class’ or top of anything. Just wanting to rester ici au le marché. To hear and smell and touch and taste and see. Être. To be.
This old fisherman’s house beside a tidal river in Morbihan is a place we visit in our dreams all year round. Rain, hail or shine in the UK we remember the sights and sounds of the France I’m hearing now, on a quiet Sunday morning, as we’re summoning up the will to bestir ourselves to cycle down to the boulangerie for coffee, bread, morning pastries and watching the world go by.
There’s a definite hint of autumn in the air here. Conkers fallen to footpaths amongst the earliest shed leaves. Choral birdsong, bright and familiar, just feet away from the wide-open French windows. The exquisitely distinctive sound of the river lapping at its banks and the gentle turning of the boats as the tide changes. Apple trees laden. Poetic lines come to mind but none so fine as the waking to the sights and sounds of a riverside Sunday morning en Bretagne.
Our annual and always much anticipated visit to Brittany is underway, with an overnight crossing to St Malo, to be followed by the familiar drive down to Morbihan. I don’t know how they’ve managed to remain so consistent over years and years, but Brittany Ferries continue to excel. Of course I love boats generally as I’ve mentioned here before (probably more than once or twice!) but unfailingly welcoming and attentive crew, first rate steak frites, a tour of the ship, and a great night’s comfortable sleep really are part of the holiday for us. Sailing into early morning St Malo on a misty sunlit morning is undoubtedly one of my favourite things. Hat tip today to MV Bretagne and the Brittany Ferries fleet.
It has been more than thirty years since I last visited Winchester. Today I was particularly struck by the success of the city’s pedestrianisation. Supported by an excellent park and ride scheme (the key here being that the buses are regular and start and stop frequently) the city centre is an altogether people-friendly place. With wonderfully international street market stalls, a few excellent buskers, plenty of variety in good restaurants, a Norman cathedral, fine parks and gardens, and young and old alike safe to meander about the place on foot, we found Winchester an altogether attractive place to be.