Post France

After a few moments of confusion when waking up, I’m back in my own flat, cat less but still ready for a burst of crepuscular activity, my head still in Lyon and Aix-en-Provence; Lyon where I left an unwilling friend by the roadside fifty years ago, spurred on by the urge to be alone and burdened by the memory of having acted shabbily and pointlessly, and the cold night I spent alone a few kilometres on the road to Paris beside a sign telling me that I had arrived in Mâcon; Lyon a blur in the night, scattered references from A-level European history about the history of the workers’ movement and gastronomy.

And I have learnt that, while you can’t change the past, you can lighten its burden, alleviate the sting of remorse, by linking it to new memories; to replace the strange onward hasty rush of the tourism of my twenties with more satisfying associations, richer and deeper.

And Lyon is now the confluence of two mighty rivers, the Rhone and Saône, where we walk to the very tip of Presqu’île, metres away from the rushing waters, the patrician dignity of the upmarket area where my relatives live, the old town in an air bnb, topped by its grateful basilica, thanking Maria for saving the city from the invading Prussians (and perhaps also like Sacré Coeur in Paris, a golden thanks and sigh of relief by the not so worthy burgesses celebrating the temporary laying to  rest of the old mole of the revolution after the bloody end of the Paris Commune in 1871).

And the fascinating history of the canuts, the struggles of the silk workers with associations to Saint Simon and utopian socialism, where the working class emerges from the vestiges of mediaeval confusion to act on its own behalf, reminding me of my recent visit to the Cotswolds and the earlier little meisters in Sheffield and making me want to re-read E.P. Thompson’s “The History of the English Working Class”.

A bit disappointed by my pile of largely unread books about the canuts, my staying power when reading French being less than the fluency of my hopeful imagination. But I shall get to grips with them, buoyed up by help to read Jean Giono’s complicated imagery as my TGV made its way through Alsace.

The canut museum is fine, much better than the Gadagne museum of the history of Lyon, which felt savaged by the rush from chronology to trends. I want to understand “thinking about museums” better and shall make myself a reading list for 2022. The old-style museum with its piles of objects, perhaps more focused on the researcher than the casual visitor, clearly had its problems, as did the museum as an instrument of propaganda, celebrating the onward march of a people to the glorious present. But the stripping away of historical context in favour of trends leaves me with a sense of loss, no longer able to let my imagination wander from one ancient object to another, to let the past touch me with its slender fingers but instead having my elbow jostled at every turn by the visibly flashy but poor narration of another’s imagination, which often feels shallow.

And the broader question, can a museum provide a people with history or perspective worthy of its name in our society?

It’s also the festival of light in Lyon where buildings are lit up by appealing stories and patterns of light. I’m apprehensive of the crowds in these plagued times, but we were well guided and it was a good experience.

And then to Aix-en-Provence, a city whose warm stone and eighteenth-century buildings have great appeal. Some museums are new for me – the museum of old Aix, the reopened Granet and the tapestry museum and return visits to Cezanne’s atelier on the northern edge, the few visitors and milder day making up for the shock of winter cold on arrival. And I learn about Mirabeau whose mellifluous name shades a dubious life. We even escape the north on a fine day trip walking along the seafront in Cascais near Marseille, a memory to dream about during the sombre days to come.

And not the least Provençal, where Librairie Le Blason is still going strong and I buy Nobel prize winner Frédéric Mistral’s long bilingual poem Mirèio/Mireille. I am feeling more and more at home in Provençal, its literature, Daudet, Bosco, Pagnol and Giono, as well as, of course, Mistral, and language. But there is still much to learn about the complicated relationships between Spanish, Catalan, Gascon, Provençal, the ways of classifying French dialects and the intermediary slew between France and Italy in Provence and old Savoy. It ‘s a dabble but a sensuous, satisfying dabble where the physical beauty of much of Provence blends with my own attachment to the West Country, enabling me to think about location and bonds in a broader context and not just as eccentric personal history.

And now back to my Swedish base, buoyed up by being able to make an outline plan for 2022 as my TGV and ICE trains made their way to Frankfurt and Hamburg (luckily completed before time slowed to a crawl in Denmark).

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