Founder-members of the blogging crew in this spot are almost unusual enough to be called eccentric. They include Hazlitt – a painter and sculptor — who has been reading a biography of his namesake, William Hazlitt, the extraordinary essayist, by Catherine Macdonald Maclean. Yesterday he sent our last thread — on pianos and violins — spinning in a delightfully unexpected direction when he quoted her mention of her subject seeing village bells as ‘the poor man’s only music’. This drew from Alarming, another stalwart blogger — who happens to be an installation artist — a confession of jumping out of a large clock in place of a cuckoo, on the hour, dressed in a fibreglass knight’s costume. (And no, this is not the sort of site where people ask what he was wearing under that.)
From there, we somehow ambled onto the subject of church bells. . . which reminded me of a holiday in the south of France; also, that I’m supposed to be running a second test of blogger polling software. Folding these thoughts together gave me a new voting theme, chosen – like the first – to tell us just a tiny bit more about who comes here. Absolutely anybody reading this – you don’t need to be a registered acciaccature blogger – is invited to cast a vote in the poll that follows this post, a record of that holiday written a few years ago. . . With luck the choices you make will help to answer this question: just how batty are we, as a group?
Woken at 4 a.m. by wooden shutters clattering in caterwauling winds like pot-lids on a full, manic boil, I seemed to be listening to theme music for the perfect, perverse holiday. I mean, a winter holiday in a summer place – in this instance, in the Languedoc. Early December floods in southeastern France had shut down autoroutes, enforced the evacuation of 15,000 inhabitants, and made me compete for a hotel room with travelling salesmen who also had to spend an unplanned night in Béziers, an unassuming wine country town about ten kilometres from the Mediterranean.
I cannot say that the mini-crisis was a surprise, exactly. As a specialist in off-season vacations for twenty years, I know that they come with risks of misadventure and physical discomfort.
That storm blew in at the end of a week in which all hope of sampling the gastronomic delights of the Midi had disappeared with my friend and travelling companion’s diabolical attack of food poisoning mere hours after we got in from Paris. The house that we’d been lent in the tiny, quasi-medieval village of Poilhes, a 30-minute drive from Béziers, was so frigid that living with its bare stone floors and sumptuous expanses of marble was like a premature entombment. What the nearby beaches are like I cannot say: my London cold bloomed menacingly on days when a trip to the water’s edge was possible.
I suspect that people who relish off-season travel were the sort of tedious child less interested in how the survivor in Three Little Pigs tricked the wolf than what it felt like to be in the house made of straw, or of sticks, when the huffing and puffing got underway. As adults, we would add to the old saying about a change being as good as a rest that a change replete with the enticingly inconvenient is even better.
Wilfred Thesiger, the legendary explorer – who only died in this century — was lucky. He only travelled, by choice, to places uncontaminated by tourism, cars or concrete. Off-season travel has a delicious whiff of his encounters with the unforeseeable because guidebooks are written for fair-weather journeys.
No travel guide could have prepared me for the spectacle of miles of rolling vineyards in autumnal red abruptly saturated in a blue glow when lightning slashed at the horizon and obliterated the yellow lights of Béziers’s huge, fortress-like St. Nazaire cathedral-on-a-hill, the highest point on the landscape. Watching from a window of a snug hotel would not have been the same thing at all. I would certainly have awarded the scene the kind of shallow marvelling I might some celluloid construction of George Lucas’ special effects department. But out in the storm’s path — unforgettably, my friend and I saw each mesmerising flash driving at a hesitant crawl, the merest acceleration churning up roaring water spouts to our right and left.
Nor would a guidebook have led me to expect that in going anywhere that night, we would be ignoring the warnings of Poilhes’s town crier, an old man who – between thunderclaps – broadcast into the howling darkness on a megaphone about the perilous state of the roads. He spoke in the broad local dialect, genially, at the ambling pace of someone taking a nip or three of pastis as he scratched himself and waited for his turn at boules.
Who knew that a French village with telephones and television would still have a town crier? – or certainly a person acting in that capacity.
There’s no getting away from it all for the truly perverse winter vacationer – who will tend to be someone who actually enjoys work in our age of ‘always on, 24/7’ accessibility. Down time is treated as sacrosanct in summer. Summer offices are resigned to getting by with skeleton staffs and rarely make demands on colleagues on holiday. But in winter – when most of the world is working – vacationers who don’t respond to summons from the workplace can find themselves left out of decisions that matter to them.
In the Languedoc I conscientiously read and wrote email memos in internet cafés in hotel lobbies, video arcades and narrow cobblestone alleys. The job of drafting a work-related budget in semi-darkness in the gaming annexe of a computer shop beside Béziers’ flower market had, for a sound track, pow! eeeee-yow! zzzz-zap! – manufactured by teenage boys clustered around neighbouring computer screens, fighting monsters in Yu-Gi-Oh!, a Japanese import.
That night I lay awake mentally editing the budget and puzzling over why the inhabitants of Poilhes put up with church bells that sounded every hour – and not once but twice, all through the night. Might the sleep deprivation be deliberate, a variant of medieval rites of mortification of the flesh? Or were the chimes designed to penetrate the ears of roly-poly pensioners – the dominant demographic segment – even after they had taken out their hearing-aids? On sunny mornings, the old ones snoozed on benches along the Canal du Midi, the feat of 17th-century engineering that bisects the village. But why should they need to know that it was 1 a.m., then 2 a.m., 3 a.m., . . .?
On a perverse vacation, unsolved mysteries and exotic images and sounds are superimposed on prosaic workday thoughts – in juxtapositions that can be as improbable as a surrealist painter’s. Going home, there’s nothing like the wrench of a paradise lost that returning from an unreal, sybaritic week on a beach inflicts, never mind that mild boredom is often par for that course. Nothing is lost, coming or going. Your reality has merely been skewed a little – for fun.