Nearly Perfect Weekend in Lyon

Lyon is one of my favourite cities, not just because it hosts the annual Quais du Polar crime festival. Yet, no matter how often I come here, I never seem to have enough time to visit everything. So I was determined to do two completely new things this ‘weekend of adieus’: see a show in the Roman amphitheatre for Les Nuits de Fourvière festival; and get to see the Brothers Lumière Museum about early cinema. Well, one out of two is not bad…

The stage is ready in the oldest Roman amphitheatre in France.
The stage is ready in the oldest Roman amphitheatre in France.

The Blues Night featured American blues music legend Taj Mahal; a ‘Mali meets New York’ session with guitarists Habib Koité and Eric Bibb; and local boy (relatively speaking), saxophonist Raphaël Imbert and his band. The atmosphere was very special (at least until the cushions went flying onstage), and it was delightful to see people of all ages and backgrounds enjoying this kind of music. Thank you to Emma from Book Around the Corner, who suggested I join her for this event!

But the rest of the weekend involved doing a few of my favourite things.

Some eating at a traditional Lyonnais bouchon may have been involved...
Some eating at a traditional Lyonnais bouchon may have been involved…
Wandering through some of the spectacular old traboules.
Wandering through some of the spectacular old traboules.
One of my favourite 'hidden gardens': the cafe at the top of the Gadagne Museum.
One of my favourite ‘hidden gardens’: the cafe at the top of the Gadagne Museum.
Visiting the Art Museum, with its beautiful shady gardens.
Visiting the Art Museum, with its inner courtyard, a haven of peace.
I didn't go to see a Guignol show this time, but I do like the French equivalent of 'Punch and Judy'.
I didn’t go to see a Guignol show this time, but I do like the French equivalent of ‘Punch and Judy’.
Popping into the boulangerie for a croissant (old shop sign in the Old Town).
Popping into the boulangerie for a croissant (old shop sign in the Old Town).
Looking through the second-hand books on the quay.
Looking through the second-hand books on the quay.

Of course, it’s the last thing I needed right now, but a few books just seemed to sneak their way into my bag. I will write more about the bookshop I got them from in a follow-up post.

With HUGE thanks to Emma for the Romain Gary book.
With HUGE thanks to Emma for the Romain Gary book.

So what prevented it from being the perfect weekend? Not the fact that I didn’t make it to the Lumière Museum, but that when I sat down for breakfast at a local café, there was a disturbance outside. A group of diverse young men, some black, some white, some drunk, some sober, started making a great deal of noise and one of them grabbed another by the neck in what looked like a rather violent incident. The police were called and managed to walk one or two of the worst troublemakers away. Then, as I passed in front of the remaining group, I heard them speaking Romanian.

I wanted the pavement to open up and swallow me right then and there.

 

Voltaire and His Creation, Ferney

Why would a world-famous writer and philosopher at the height of his creative powers choose to bury himself in a tiny hamlet of no more than 150 inhabitants in the middle of nowhere? Voltaire was a sociable being, certainly not someone to chase solitude, but what he did crave was freedom: to think and write what he pleased. And Ferney’s very isolation and distance from Paris were what made the location attractive to him.

Or perhaps it was the view from the terrace?
Or perhaps it was the view from the terrace?

After a stint in Prussia, Voltaire was aching to return to Paris, but Louis XV was not keen to have the writer back, agitating spirits. So in 1754 Voltaire started searching for a town with a thriving printing industry (he knew he couldn’t stop himself from writing). He was told that in Lyon he would be persona non grata (conservative archbishop etc.), so he settled initially in Geneva, a traditional place of refuge for Protestant French.

You can see he was a born troublemaker: on the church he built for his villagers, he not only clearly states that it was Voltaire who built it for God, but his own name is in bigger letters than God's.
You can see he was a born troublemaker: on the church he built for his villagers, he not only clearly states that it was Voltaire who built it for God, but his own name is in bigger letters than God’s.

However, the Calvinist spirit of that town soon quashed his enthusiasm, so after just three years he escaped outside the city limits, to a domaine which had previously been disputed between Savoy and the Swiss: Fernex. So many place names in the area end in ‘x’ – Gex, Ornex, Echenevex, Founex, but the final letter is not pronounced, so one of the first things Voltaire did was change the spelling of the place-name to correspond phonetically.

The chateau is currently under (some much needed) renovation.
The chateau is currently under (some much-needed) renovation.

Of course, Voltaire was already 64 when he moved to Ferney, so one might well have expected him to live in peaceable retirement, but he was not the kind to put on his slippers and smoke his pipe and just receive a couple of visitors with whom to reminisce about past glories. His energy was astounding, although even he could not have expected to live for another 20 years here.

Always thinking ahead, he even built his own grave, in a pyramid shape outside the church - neither in nor out, as he called it.
Always thinking ahead, he even built his own grave, in a pyramid shape outside the church – neither in nor out, as he called it.

By the time of his death, he had drained the marshes around the hamlet, created a flourishing town of more than 1200 inhabitants, predominantly Huguenot watchmakers and artisans who had fled the persecutions in Paris. He built a church, a school, a water reservoir, a theatre, many streets and houses, lent money for the artisans to set up their businesses (with an interest rate ten times lower than the usual ones), introduced a breed of sheep and cattle (their descendants still roam the fields around the chateau today) and new methods of farming, even tried to set up a silkworm farm.

Just beyong the flower show, you can see the fish pool he installed on the grounds.
Just beyond the flower show, you can see the carp pool he installed on the grounds.

Every year, he spent between 70 to 85% of his income on Ferney itself, and his niece Mme Denis claimed that the town ruined Voltaire. But he never regretted it.

Voltaire built a small theatre on his grounds, like this orangery which still stands today, but he soon had to move it into the village itself, as there were too many people coming to watch his plays.
Voltaire built a small theatre on his grounds, like this orangery which still stands today, but he soon had to move it into the village itself, as there were too many people coming to watch his plays. The carriages coming from Geneva caused the first traffic jams in the area!

After his death, unfortunately, things went belly up. Mme Denis couldn’t wait to leave the countryside and rush back to Paris, and in just 4 months she had sold the chateau, the library (to Catherine II of Russia) and the manuscript collection, as well as all precious objects. The chateau was bought and sold on in quick succession, most of its period detail was lost in the process, while bits and pieces of Voltaire’s heritage were sold or demolished. People began to abandon the village; the watch and jewellery makers moved back to Geneva.

In the late 19th century the village became a tourist attraction once more because of Voltaire, and this building once housed a hotel.
In the late 19th century the village became a tourist attraction once more because of Voltaire, and this building once housed a hotel.

It took over 100 years to reach the population levels of Voltaire’s time and 200 years to reach those prosperity levels once more. So it’s not surprising that the townspeople have always felt gratitude towards their benefactor and wanted to add his name to that of his village. They first did so in 1780, two years after Voltaire’s death, but in 1815 it reverted back to the old name. Napoleon could be very autocratic, when he wanted! Finally, with the celebration of the centenary of Voltaire’s death, in 1878 the village was allowed to change its name officially to ‘Ferney-Voltaire’.

Just down the main driveway of the chateau stood the house of Voltaire's great friend, the polyglot traveller and seaman ('cher corsaire') Henri Rieu, who translated, copied and lent books to Voltaire. It's now the Catholic school St. Vincent.
Just down the main driveway of the chateau stood the house of Voltaire’s great friend, the polyglot traveller and seaman (‘cher corsaire’) Henri Rieu, who translated, copied and lent books to Voltaire. It’s now the Catholic school St. Vincent (Voltaire must be turning in his grave).
Another grand old lady with Tsarist connections lived down the same driveway.
Another grand old lady with Tsarist connections lived in secluded surroundings on the same driveway.
And this is the house I would love to renovate and live in, also on that driveway, on the corner. It was once the village pub and cabaret, later on it became the workshop of the sculptor Lambert, who bought the chateau and bequeathed a statue of Voltaire to the village.
This is the house I would love to renovate and live in, at the bottom of the same driveway, on the corner. It was once the village pub and cabaret; later on it became the workshop of the sculptor Lambert, who lived in the chateau and bequeathed a statue of Voltaire to the village.
Voltaire was generous and liked to build houses for his friends, so they could all live close to him. This building is now the Protestant temple and vicarage, but on its ground he originally built the Palais Dauphin for his friend Mme de St Julien, but the building collapsed due to a faulty design before she could move in. Opposite it was the best and most epensive residence in Ferney (after the chateu) - Le Bijou, which Voltaire built for his nephew, the fabulist Florian.
Voltaire was generous and liked to build houses for his friends, so they could all live close to him. This building is now the Protestant temple and vicarage, but on its ground he originally built the Palais Dauphin for his friend Mme de St Julien. The building collapsed due to a faulty design before she could move in. Opposite it was the best and most expensive residence in Ferney (after the chateau) – Le Bijou, which Voltaire built for his nephew, the fabulist Florian.
I can't help but think that Voltaire would have loved all the bustle of festivals, music and colour in his old domaine.
I can’t help but think that Voltaire would have loved all the bustle of festivals, music and colour in his old domaine.

 

 

Friday Fun: Cemeteries

Not quite so fun, really, but in a week where we’ve lost two very talented people, this is a reminder of the transience of life, or, as the Japanese poem goes:

Colours are fragrant but they
will eventually scatter.
Who in our world
is unchanging?
The deep mountains of karma
we cross them today,
we shall not have superficial dreams,
nor be deluded.

Bellu Cemetery in Bucharest, from crestinortodox.ro
Bellu Cemetery in Bucharest, from crestinortodox.ro
Highgate Cemetery in London, from Wikipedia.
Highgate Cemetery in London, from Wikipedia.
Jewish Cemetery in Prague, from architecture.about.com
Jewish Cemetery in Prague, from architecture.about.com
Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, from Promptguides.com
Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, from Promptguides.com
Muslim cemetery in Sarajevo, from Wikipedia.
Muslim cemetery in Sarajevo, from Wikipedia.
The Cheerful Cemetery in Sapinta, Romania. Each gravestone has a humorous poem about the deceased. From turismland.ro
The Cheerful Cemetery in Sapinta, Romania. Each gravestone has a humorous poem about the deceased. From turismland.ro

 

We Work, We Write… And Rinse, Repeat!

Life is a house of cards. Complex and fragile, it sometimes just comes fluttering down or else you strike it with Alice-like overwhelm morphed into sour temper.

Yet at other times, the weariness is forgotten and everything seems possible. Surprisingly, Beijing (with its loud, crazy traffic and humorous, hard-working and openly curious people) had that effect on me.

Vertigo over Beijing traffic (in its calmest moments).
Vertigo over Beijing traffic (in its calmest moments).
The masters of pointless walls, which never really kept out invaders.
The masters of pointless walls, which never really kept out invaders.
Pomp and grandeur of past and present...
Pomp and grandeur of past and present…
... but it's the energy, good humour and willingness to learn of its people that I really admire.
… but it’s the energy, good humour and willingness to learn of its young people that I really admire.

I felt I could come home and tackle the long, long list of household, administrative, professional and creative tasks that I have set myself. Not just yet, though. Today I will take time to recover from jetlag and catch up with emails and blog posts. Otherwise, I may end up falling asleep just about anywhere, as is often the case in hard-working China.

P1030578

It’s not quite Friday yet, but this may well be my Friday Fun contribution for this week, as I start to get up to speed again with all of my work. Lots of reviews coming up too!

Oh, and just a whiff of Beijing smog to spoil the air on my last day there…

P1030607

Friday Fun: Stationery, Glorious Stationery!

Is there any writer out there who doesn’t love stationery? Of course, there are plenty of stationery lovers who are not writers (just hoarders or designers or… procrastinators), so there is no immediate causal link there.

Based on a conversation we started over at dVerse Poets Pub about the tools we really need as poets, I collected a few of my favourite things in this post.

1) Of course I appreciate Moleskine and the reinvention of a brand, but my personal favourite is much simpler and cheaper. Rhodia notebooks have been the smoothest writing experience in France for 80 years now. They have all sorts of ‘nouveautés’ (novelties) every year, but I just stock up on their most basic black or orange note-blocks.

rhodiablack

2) I like high-quality fountain pens. In fact, I have my eye on a Montblanc Virginia Woolf pen when I sign my publishing contract – or perhaps for autographing my books.

Notice the waves pattern?
Notice the waves pattern?

3) However, more realistically and practically, I bulk-buy Pilot G2 gel rollerballs. They work really well with the slippery-smooth Rhodia pages.

PilotG2gel

4) I’ve just discovered these rather funky notebooks from Huck and Pucker. An elastic to keep them closed is always a good idea and of course I’m bookish and proud of it!

huckandpucker

 

5) Finally, a trip to London always means a stopover at Paperchase on Tottenham Court Road: a stationery-lover’s idea of heaven. Sadly, they seem to have discontinued (at least online) my favourite notebook type, so you’ll have to make do with my own pictures. It’s a chunky A5 notebook with elastic, colourful plastic covers, 5 sections (lined, squared and blank) with dividers (with pockets to stuff notes in), plus more plastic covers and a zipped purse at the back. Just the most practical, wonderful notebook ever: I carry my whole life around in it! Paperchase, please, please bring it back!

 

Paperchase

Notebook3

Apparently there is such a thing as National Stationery Week and it’s this week. So, let me know what your ‘cannot live without’ items of stationery are. Do you hoard lots of pretty (and empty) notebooks? Oh, and point me in the direction of your luxury items too, while we are on the subject…

Friday Fun: University Library Bucharest

Something a little different this Friday – a lesson in modern history, as the 25th anniversary of the fall of most East European Communist states takes place this year (and I will spare you the ‘am I really so old, it feels like yesterday’ monologues).

biblioteca-centrala-universitara-bucuresti

Today I want to take you to a journey in the South-East corner of Europe, to Bucharest in Romania. This is the University Library in the heart of the capital in its renovated reincarnation. But it didn’t always look like that…

25 years ago, in December 1989, as Romania was struggling to shake off the shackles of the CeauÅŸescu dictatorship, the library (BCU, as it’s known in Romanian) suffered from its central location and proximity to the Communist Party headquarters. A fire devastated the building, destroying more than 500 000 books from its collection, as well as countless manuscripts of famous Romanian writers.

bcu-la-revolutie

 

I remember a librarian telling me that she was going back into the burning building and carrying out books with her bare hands, tears streaming down her face, as if they were her children.

 

BiblCarol-2_7
From getlokal.ro

Fortunately, an appeal made by UNESCO in 1990 led to an outpour of sympathy, support and book donations from all over the world: 100 000 books donated by private individuals and associations in Romania, 800 000 from elsewhere.

biblrezistenta.net
From rezistenta.net

Just behind the library was a Secret Service stronghold and listening centre (now integrated into the library extension). The bullet shots attest to the heavy fighting that took place there during those confusing days in late December. I had to write my thesis in another library, as the BCU was closed for many years following this disaster.

From romaniadacia.wordpress.com
From romaniadacia.wordpress.com

The library reopened in 2001. The refurbished old reading rooms are pretty much as I remember them… except for the laptops on every desk, of course.

bibluniv

 

The new wing is perhaps less ‘atmospheric’ but much more user-friendly. And I like the combination of open shelving and book ordering system. After all, a library without shelves to browse is a bit lifeless, isn’t it?

biblunitatea centrala

Unless otherwise specified, all the pictures are from the website of the library http://www.bcub.ro .

 

 

Friday Fun: Paris As an Inspiration

Back from our Paris trip and wading through 650+ emails… so I may be a little behind with reading and commenting on your blogs… Here are some highlights from our trip – some iconic sights, and some lesser-known ones.

Notre Dame in autumn.
Notre Dame in autumn.
Sainte Chapelle  stained windows.
Sainte Chapelle stained windows.
Flower market.
Flower market.
Jardin des Plantes (botanical garden).
Jardin des Plantes (botanical garden).
Natural History Museum - Evolution Hall.
Natural History Museum – Evolution Hall.
Parc des Buttes Chaumont.
Parc des Buttes Chaumont.
City of Science - The Geode.
City of Science – The Geode.
Zoo of Vincennes.
Zoo of Vincennes.
Nikki de Saint Phalle sculpture along the quay bearing her name.
Nikki de Saint Phalle Nana sculpture along the quay bearing her name.
Jardin des Tuileries. The goat in front of the Louvre.
Jardin des Tuileries. The goat in front of the Louvre.
More Nanas... bathing...
More Nanas… bathing…
The obligatory pilgrimage to Shakespeare & Co. bookshop. Although, as my older son said: 'What's the point of bringing us here if we don't buy any books?'
The obligatory pilgrimage to Shakespeare & Co. bookshop. Although, as my older son said: ‘What’s the point of bringing us here if we don’t buy any books?’
I do wish I'd bought this pop-up book of Paris...
I do wish I’d bought this pop-up book of Paris…

 

 

Friday Fun: Writing Desks and Cabins, Of Course

It’s been such a busy week! What better way to end it (and look forward to the half-term holidays) then with a few pictures of the places where we have been so good and hard-working…

Copyright: JAM Design.
Copyright: JAM Design.

No, I’m not sure what that over-sized gemstone is doing under the desk, either…

Domainehome.com, apartment in the Dakota Building, NYC.
Domainehome.com, apartment in the Dakota Building, NYC.

Blue, blue, electric blue … is the colour of my room… Yes, it might give you migraine after a while, but what a joy to come home to! (And did you notice the bottles?)

www.decoist.com
http://www.decoist.com

Ah, that’s much calmer, monochrome, almost Zen…

www.decoist.com
http://www.decoist.com

A great combination of feminine charm and masculine practicality. But can I exchange the dog for a cat?

Writing Shed, from Flavorwire.com
Writing Shed, from Flavorwire.com

Preferably in a forest, far, far away from here, with no Internet connection…

Have a lovely weekend!

Sometimes You Just Need Time Out…

… I didn’t work, I didn’t write, I didn’t even read anything this weekend. This time it was all about the family, enjoying the autumn (despite the less than sterling weather) and creating memories. And the apple-and-pear juice we made is the best thing we’ve ever tasted!

Autumn landscape in the Saleve.
Autumn landscape in the Saleve.
Walking for charity in the Botanical Gardens in Geneva.
Walking for charity in the Botanical Gardens in Geneva.
Gathering apples and pears for juice-making.
Gathering apples and pears for juice-making.
Squeezing the juice out of the fruit pulp.
Squeezing the juice out of the fruit pulp.
Releasing balloons for the Charity Walk.
Releasing balloons for the Charity Walk.
The perfect place to write a poem, don't you agree?
The perfect place to write a poem, don’t you agree?

 

Friday Fun: Barn Conversions

So many of you liked the barn conversion picture I posted last Friday that I thought I would go out and take pictures of more barns in the area for you. They are a bit different from barns in the UK or US: there’s a lot more stone involved, for one.

This is usually the starting point - just four walls crumbling.
This is usually the starting point – just four walls crumbling.
This is your basic conversion: doors and windows all kept to the original size.
This is your basic conversion: doors and windows all kept to the original size.
This is the more ambitious and modern version.
This is the more ambitious and modern version.
This is the version which combines tradition and modernity.
This is the version which combines tradition and modernity.
And this is the farmhouse wing right next to the barn above. Pure charm and my ideal living space!
And this is the farmhouse wing right next to the barn above. Pure charm and my ideal living space!

One little confession: When I first moved to this area, I dreamt of owning a chateau with a vineyard on the hills of La Cote, overlooking Lake Geneva. With this view.

From The Guardian.
From The Guardian.

By now I would be quite happy with a converted barn in my area, slightly further away from the lake and without a vineyard (but maybe an orchard?).

The truth of course is that I will never own any property in this area, as the prices are exorbitant. But hey, we can always dream a little…