We did more than sit around, me and Bea. We went on an excursion into the Pyrenees one time. I remember winding our way up into the snow-covered mountains, that captivated me as they were higher mountains than I had ever seen. We stayed in an old house in a little village, Goulier, near Andorra and ate fondue for dinner by a vast old stone fireplace. we visited Albi, the seat of the Cathar sect, the members of whom were also called Albigensians but more of that in a while. We visited Moissac with its carved, Romanesque churches.
Once Beas boyfriend was home we went visiting some of his friends, driving through the Languedoc, avenues of massive trees, fields of rape. We stayed for dinner in one place, a modest farmhouse the woman of which, in her house coat, would not have been out-of-place in a village in Ireland. Unlike an Irish meat and two veg meal (with some custard and stewed apple to finish)we were treated to a seven course feast. I was told I must finish everything or else I would be insulting the host. I remember her standing over us, silent in her house coat, as we ate. I remember home-made chocolate mousse. I remember being stuffed.
We sometimes visited Beas sisters. One sister lived an idyllic life on a farm with her husband and children. the other, Marie-France we’ll call her, was a bit wilder. She had previously sold encyclopedias in Africa. When she returned she had tiny worms in her blood. She was unable to afford the only cure, a complete blood change, for years and Bea told me that when they had a fight she could see the worms galloping (or the worm equivalent of galloping)around under the skin of Marie-Frances chest.
Marie-France was convinced she had been a Native American in her last life and lived in a wigwam with a boyfriend called Grey Wolf. And I have to say with her black hair and almond eyes she did look very like an Indian. All the beads and suede helped too I guess.
I liked Marie-France and she was good to me, bringing me to a New Age fair where a fortune teller told her she was an Indian in her previous life(those beads again) and also to an African music night which remains one of the best nights dancing I ever had.
We also visited Beas father in his country stronghold which he shared with their step-mother. Everyone in the family was divorced at least once which particularly impressed me being the sort who can barely get someone to have a coffee with me let alone marry me let alone divorce me. Being divorced to me is a sign of great desirability and sophistication. Anyway, it turned out that the father, a formidable character with an acid personality, was, like Marie-France, also an aficionado of the Wild West but he spent his spare time dressed up as a cowboy rather than an Indian. He had all the gear too. A psychologist could have had a field day with that particular Father-Daughter relationship.
At the beginning of May, frustrated and without work I decided to strike out on my own, take a little trip. These days some people think of me as a fearless traveller and when I think that I have stood alone at an African Border post at dusk surrounded by a crowd of jeering taxi drivers maybe they are right but back then I was terrified.
ASIDE:Actually I would have and should have been terrified at the African border post if I hadn’t been so intent on getting a cut-price taxi ride. I blame my parsimonious genes for that.
I still feel the fear I felt on the platform at Toulouse train station as I waited for the train to Nimes. I wanted to run home, back to Beas place, to hide. But at least I had a destination. I was going to see the famous painter Micheal Farrell who apparently was a friend of my “new” boyfriend. But first I stopped off at Montpellier which I remember as being paved with white marble and Nimes with its magnificent, crumbling yellow Bull Ring. This was my first time intentionally using youth hostels and I found it, and still find it quite unsettling. You meet people, you talk about your lives, your hopes, your deepest fears and when you wake next morning they are gone. Hostels seem to throw abandonment issues into sharp relief. These days I enjoy it more, this bitter-sweetness of ships passing in the night but back then I was extremely disconcerted.
I was glad to get to Arles where I was picked up by Micheal Farrell, one of a small number of famous Irish artists. Mind you at the time I had no idea who he was or that he was famous. He was just a chap my boyfriend knew. I stayed with them for two or three days and he was a generous host even if his young wife appeared to be a bit angry. I wasn’t so impressed by the wife I have to say and not just because of what I though of as her inexplicable hostility.
She was an award-winning illustrator but when I first met her she had just photocopied a book of photographs of Versailles so she could trace a ballroom for an illustarted book on Cinderella. I was, as an artist, and still am, flabbergasted that someone can be such a success by just tracing things. Tracing, I always thought, was cheating. I shouldn’t be put out I guess. It’s the way of the world and if I wasn’t born with a brass neck that’s my own bad luck.
These two, lived in a marvellous old house they had bought for £20,000 and renovated. It was in a tiny old village complete with boule playing men, drifting white blossoms, a walled castle and an old bar where we had some wine. She, an australian, told me that after they had bought it she found out that her ancestors had come from the very same village.
It was an idyllic life and a glimpse into the milieu of the Irish artist in exile. Their friends included the -in my opinion-dreadfully bad painter Eithne Jordan, sister of Neil Jordan who lived nearby. Another brass neck there. I didn’t belong, with either the brass-neckers or the deservedly famous and I left soon after it emerged that Michael Farrell, all vagueness and politeness, could not remember the person I was describing as my boyfriend…unless he was the chap that fell asleep in his toilet at a party in his apartment in Paris one night?That would be him alright. No wonder wifey was angry. Maybe she didn’t believe him that he did not know the cutie(well, I was then 😉 ) that turned up on the doorstep. Or maybe she did. I was eager to leave then, to get back to Ireland or at least get on the phone and kill said boyfriend.
Michael Farrell died in 2000 and I remember him fondly. He was extraordinarily nice to me considering I was a complete stranger who turned up on his doorstep, unconnected to anything he might imagine.
I left to travel onto the Camargue, the capital of which is Saintes Marie de la Mer. When I arrived however there was no hostel available or at least the one that was far from any bus routes. Finally I gave up and decided to return to Toulouse. I figure I had done too badly for my first trip alone.
When I returned to Toulouse, Helen and Carrie came down from Paris for a visit. I persuaded Bea to take us back to the Pyrenees, this time to the last stronghold of the Cathars. I was such a history nerd and I am sure I was the only one who wanted to see this old fortress. The Cathars were a sect who appeared in this region in the 11th century. They believed in a dualism, good and evil and that everything earthly was evil. They called themselves christians. They did not believe in priesthood, though some chose to live as parfaits, members of the community who were celibate. They didn’t eat animal products or use churches and lived in deliberate poverty.
As you can imagine, thy made the medieval church look pretty bad and thus was launched the fourth crusade in which the Cathars were crushed. During the slaughter at Beziers where 20,000 people were killed in one night, the monk in charge of the attack, Arnald-Amalric, was asked by a soldier how he would know who was a Cathar and who was not. “Kill them all, God will know his own”, the monk replied.
The last Cathars held out at Montsegur enduring a 9 month siege and finally succumbed in 1244 when the last them were burned at the foot of the rocky outcrop on which the fortress still stands. Rumour has it that the Holy Grail was smuggled out from here, down the sheer cliffs, in the last days of the siege. Maybe it was in the sense that the Holy Grail could be the spirit that moves people to stand up for their beliefs and for freedom and to stand against corruption. If that is the case, the Grail is still missing, in Ireland at the very least.
It’s a steep climb up to Montsegurbut worth it. All around are the mountains still veined with snow and far below the village. There is nothing left now but the walls. It must have been brutal in the cold weather but on the day we visited it was warm and sunny. Like many of these sites, it held and still holds a fascination for me as does the human psychology that brought such a brutal end to such peaceful people, a psychology that seems doomed to repeat the same story over and over again all over the world right up to the present time. Maybe I visit these sites because I think I will find an answer but there probably is no answer.
We stopped at Foix on the way back for coffee, another town with another castle. Languedoc is so full of these historical towns and villages. Even the ordinary wee towns are still made up of buildings with ancient wooden cross beams through crumbling plaster, arched arcades and cobbled stone streets rising up to covered market places. Once, the “new” boyfriend came to meet some clients and I spent a few days with him and we travelled through some of these old villages. We wandered around Cordes and I took these photos.
While Carrie and Helen were still in Toulouse, we went to Carcassonne, the famous old walled city of the south. It is quite touristy but it is indeed a sight to see.
Helen and Carrie went back and the boyfriend had gone and I was starting to get sick of hanging around looking for jobs and began to hanker to get home again, to get my own space and to create a more focussed plan for my life-something that , 20 years later, has yet to happen. So I left Toulouse at the end of May and went home to Ireland.
I have always meant to go back to Toulouse. Bea and Charlotte are no longer there, they moved to Normandy where Bea married her soldier boyfriends. I lost contact but saw them again just over ten years ago when they visited Ireland. Charlotte of course was a teenager and we were all strangers. I often think they must miss the south. I know I do. The warm days, the lazy evenings, the good clean wine. Dusty buildings criss-crossed with oak and spiked with random towers, the churches with their gargoyles and ruined arches and dark, cool cloisters. Ancient bull rings still host the cheers of the bullfighting crowd as white blossom drift through old walled villages and the click clack sound of old men playing Boules in the parks and on the streets and all of it laced and stained the history of passionate and bloody people.