Ornans August 1990 – August 2010

I remember the time and place , exactly I what was doing and even what I was wearing at the time........
Paris, August 1990, The Pyramids at the Louvre , bathing my feet in their water fountains,
dressed in a pink dress inherited from my then (and still!) Supermodel sister. It was my first trip abroad. It was when I first fell, head over heels, in love with France. It was un coup de foudre. I was sixteen and filled with wonder and awe at the beauty and promise of the world – but especially at the magical quality of this country I'd arrived in. As well as being dressed in it, I guess, at sweet sixteen I saw la vie en rose.

That moment – the sun on my face, the water through my toes and the azure colour of the sky – all through the prism of those beautiful mini bastions of civilisation, will stay with me forever – the way some people remember their first kiss. I wrote postcards then and there in my then elaborate handwriting to firstly my Mum and Dad saying: “How will you keep me on the farm now?”. A bit tongue in cheek but meaning it a little so moved was I. I also wrote a postcard to my brother in law in Tokyo , husband of Supermodel sister, declaring my love of France and saying that I thought it was the beginning of a beautiful love affair....The innocence and joie de vivre of it all.

As it transpires it was just the beginning of such an affair. I've since studied French at university, been to Paris and indeed many other places in France many times since and even married my true love there.

The trip to Paris was part of a “Being Young in Europe” homestay prgramme I went on with my friend Liz. We were there with teen guys and girls from all over the EU. We spent the last 2 weeks of it, after Paris, in French homes in Ornans which is a town in the East of France through which the Doubs river runs and over which many of its houses hang. I stayed with an elderly French lady called Madame Benoit who had her son, daughter in law and 2 grandchildren from Paris staying at the same time. Liz stayed with a family who kept, what Dr Dolittle Liz thought to her delight, were pet rabbits until said rabbits ended up on the dinner table.

I have such fond memories of those few weeks – the natural beauty of the place, the sunshine, heat, kayaking, the discotheque and lots of laughter (remember how you could laugh so hard your tummy hurt?). Somehow something of the place had always stayed with me and I'd vowed to return some day. This trip afforded the opportunity so back I went, 20 years on, along with my gorgeous husband and son who weren't even a twinkle in my eye when last there all those years ago.

It was quite cold, wet and grey when we arrived and the village had grown busier in the past 20 years so it all felt a bit alien initially. I could sense that Phil was a little bit underwhelmed at this place I'd spoken so much of as we strolled through it upon arrival. I was wondering to myself if my memory and mind had romanticised Ornans and elevated it above it's station. Neither of us mentioned anything to the other about our thoughts. We decided to seek out our campsite just outside town and return later to try to find the house I'd stayed in.

We arrived back into Ornans as evening fell. Dusk brought out the sun and, in its crepuscular mantle, the village again revealed all of its charms and beauty. There was something of that old magic in the air maybe helped by that post rain stillness and rawness....the kind that makes spiders webs glitter. I knew that Phil saw the charm and beauty too and it was only then he admitted his earlier reticence. We all enjoyed a lovely amble for over an hour but I still couldn't find the house I had stayed in. I thought it would have been obvious to me where it was but I searched to no avail that evening. I mentioned to Phil that maybe I could ask in the local Notaire's office or the Town Hall to see if they had any record of a lady by the name of Benoit harving lived in Ornans , (I knew she had to have passed on), thinking he'd tell me I was crazy but he thought it was a good idea and encouraged me to present myself at the Town Hall the next morning. And so I did. I had intended to go alone. It was something of a personal quest and toddlers and French bureaucracy do not a happy pair make. Unknownst to me though, Phil and Luca had followed me in Pink Panther fashion, ducking behind pillars etc., and were there, to my delight in the end, to witness my “Who do you think you are?” moment. I got the address and information I'd sought from the very obliging Secretary who had to access old, manual files to retrieve it. Madame Aimee Benoit had indeed died – 10 years ago – in hospital and the house had not stayed in the family. The house was at 9 rue Jacques Gervais to which we got directions and set off to find. It was lovely retracing these old steps with my boys. Forming new memories of Ornans with them that we will all share and be a part of.

As soon as I turned into the street I knew it was the right one. We hadn't been to that part of the town on our searches. And then number 9 itself. Older and less colourful but still there. A lighthouse in the storm of change around it. A couple of banks and a postoffice now stood across from it and a hotel beside it. I stood outside looking up and could hear the voices from the past - a bit like the groundskeeper in the Heineken Cup ad. The sound of a white poodle yapping incessantly, kids rowing and their grandmother yelling. It was like regaining something of my 16 year old self just for an instant. And then – gone. Time doesn't stand still. The house had a new life now and, well, so did I.

I went for a coffee with Phil and Luca in the “new” hotel beside it and we planned out our route to leave France. As I ordered my grand crème with ease, almost thinking in French after five weeks there, a part of me bemoaned the fact that we'd be leaving this country behind where we'd all come to feel at home in our daily life. But to be honest a bigger part was happy to leave and have more “Paris, August 1990” moments in different towns, cities and countries along the Danube route. We had spent a wonderful five weeks in France but we were seduced by the charms of Italy when we went for Lynn and John's wedding. I'm dying to go back to Italy again but I've said to Phil I will have to go back gagged and blindfolded – the food and fashion posed serious threats to the waist and wallet. Were the Italians friendlier and kinder to children than the French – hmmm...? I think so. I feel guilty having these thoughts, as though I am betraying the one I adore, but we definitely found the French at times quite indifferent and even rude over the 5 weeks. Maybe your experiences of a place change when you travel with kids, two bikes and lots of gear as opposed to as a carefree 16 year old? Je sais pas.

The past has a way of colouring your impressions. But as I discovered in Ornans time doesn't stand still.........


Post a Comment