Monday 28 August 2023

Concrete, consumptives, and Coco in a convent

The winsome Post Office!

Two months have gone by since my last post! You may be forgiven for thinking I really had thrown in the blogging towel, but not so, or not yet. I was merely dormant, fielding various issues on both houses. For as with the kitchen renovations, being the only person involved in maintenance / repairs does take up that bit more time on top of the usual everyday chores. Why, I can easily spend an hour and a half preparing, eating and clearing away lunch. ;)

So anyway, Facebook friends may have seen an album of my holiday photos from France this summer - I use the word "holiday" advisedly, as there is always a substantial element of tradesmen liaison on every trip. Or attempted tradesmen liaison, and a lot of futile waiting around. I got more militant on this visit though - or do I mean more zen? After a couple of days of waiting for the non-appearing tradesman in question, I would just say: "Stuff it, I'm going out", and out I duly went. 

Thus it was that I did a lot more sightseeing this year, of everything from a slate quarry to an industrial forge, to a river gorge, to assorted picture book-pretty villages, to the convent where Coco Chanel lived as a little girl(!), to a place that looks as far removed architecturally from people's mental image of the Dordogne as it is possible to be...Clairvivre.

Designed by the architect Pierre Forestier, Clairvivre was built in the 1930s in the Brutalist style, specifically to house WW1 veterans with tuberculosis. Its unremittingly boxy buildings - with a slightly mitigating Art Deco nod here and there in the occasional curved line - assault the senses on arrival, jarring so starkly with the soft honeyed stone of the surrounding villages, such aGénis, where (in the absence of any public facilities) I popped to the loo in the town hall. 

I was the only British car in Clairvivre - the only tourist indeed - and one of only a handful of people out and about, period! Apparently some / many? of the current residents also have health issues, which may explain the dearth of pedestrians. It was a blisteringly hot day, and I wandered around the various levels, dazzled by the sunshine and incongruity of the buildings in equal measure: it was as though I had stumbled into the DDR or somewhere of that Soviet block ilk. 

Council offices!

And here is the town hall in nearby Génis, as a "Dordogne architectural control"...

Clairvivre managed to conjure up both the ambience of a sanatorium - with its attendant whiff of illness and worse - and that of a rather drab holiday camp. Think Butlin's in the early '60s, say. It was one of the most peculiar places I have ever been to, not least because of the sheer uniformity of the buildings, both domestic and commercial. The post office pictured at the top of this post reminded me of the secret headquarters of Thunderbirds on Tracy Island. ;) But fair play to the place, it dared to sell postcards, without a hint of irony. 

Another day, I drove to the furthest reaches of the nearest big town to my village, Brive-la-Gaillarde, on a quest to buy linen for a door curtain. My guest bedroom in the French house, though small, has no fewer than five doors(!); it is your Feng Shui nightmare, basically, and I thought if I got some fabric to make a curtain for the one that leads to the attic, that would at least take the edge off the room's "door intensiveness". 

One door down...!

My errand completed, I realised that I was only about 20 minutes' drive away from the Abbaye d'Aubazine, famous for being the childhood home of Gabrielle (Coco) Chanel and two of her sisters, after the death of their mother and departure of their father to America, leaving the children effectively orphaned. Her two brothers arguably had a worse fate, being placed with local peasant farmers, and put straight to hard manual work despite their young age. 

Gabrielle was 11 at the time she entered the convent, and remained there for seven years, before moving to another convent(!), a sort of "finishing school" in a place called Moulins. If the cloistered life had been so intolerable, you would think Coco and her sisters would have struck out on their own instead, but maybe she was so institutionalised by this point that the transition was easily made. Her time with the sisters of Aubazine was a very regimented lifestyle, certainly, and not particularly academic; according to Lisa Chaney's biography, Chanel: An Intimate Life, which I review here, Coco escaped into romantic fiction, which she managed to squirrel away in her attic quarters. In later life she refers to being cared for during this period by "aunts", who turn out to be a deliberately vague conflation of actual aunts and the nuns at Aubazine. It was not a happy time, according to Chaney:

"Surrounded as she was by unloving authority figures, Gabrielle's early experience was one of consistent disharmony, repression and neglect."

Abbaye d'Aubazine

I would have liked to have gone on a tour of the abbey, but I arrived too late for the last entry time. Instead I contented myself with taking a good look inside the en suite church, which boasts some fine wood carvings. 

There is an impressive sarcophagus of Saint-Etienne (as in the actual saint, not the town, football team, or band of that name).

I also climbed up the hill to the Canal des Moines, a remarkable engineering feat fashioned by monks in the umpteenth century to supply the abbey with fresh water. (Okay, 12th C.) I only walked a short way along the path though, as I was due to collect a friend's son from the station in Brive. Still, it is nice to have a reason to come back there again when I have more time...