Beneath cobwebs.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFrancoise and I discovered another dealer also called Monsieur Michon, also retired, who lived in a village perched on top of a volcanic plug, with a fortress dominating the surroundings. I squeezed the van up steep, narrow streets and Monsieur Michon waved down to us from his terrace.

His thick walled, stone cattle barn with low, heavy beams had several pieces of furniture and crates stacked up around the walls and he left us to rummage. Beneath cobwebs and dirt a few interesting trifles were uncovered (rusty clock faces, children’s story books, picture frames, candelabra, jugs and platters).

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In one dark corner I lifted up a couple of boxes to reveal a large wooden trunk, very dusty and frassy. It contained two hundred years of notary documents (1500’s – 1700’s), tied with strips of older yellowed parchment (the hair follicles of the goat or sheep visible). Each page carried a notary stamp and documented marriages, rentals, undertakings, receipts and sales. The flamboyant plume of the notary, the grainy parchment and faded brown ink, the signatures, some well practiced, some a fisty scrawl, had me lost in bliss. The whole trunk was loaded into Sylvie without a hesitation.

Back at the chateau Francoise took me up into the vast attic and down to the cellars where we disturbed the sense of timeless, shadowy obscurity. When Francoise first took over the chateau she found in the attic some remnants of 19th century wallpaper. The original hand blocked wallpaper in the dining room had suffered much over time, but flowers and birds cut out from the remnant made perfect patches.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFrancoise took me into Le Puy one evening to hear her youngest daughter sing Vespers in the Cathedral. On one volcanic plug above the town stood a giant metal statue of the Virgin Mary, on another a tiny chapel. There was a powerful sense of place here, a starting point of pilgrimage to St Jaques de Compostella.

Steep stone streets and alleys led up beneath archways to the Cathedral. As Francoise said, whether one believed or not, there was something here for everyone. The light from the chandeliers was beautiful and the voices echoed out down the cool, soaring nave. After the service Francoise spoke with the Choir Master. A nun tried unsuccessfully to blow out a candle on a tall candlestand and when she called over one of the young choir girls, lifted her up so she could blow it out, I had to smile

“You must come to the Troc de L’Isle before you go,” said Francoise. This depot vente was one of her favourite places and every week an abundance of serendipity arrived there. It was in a large building on an industrial estate and everything – modern household goods as well as brocante – was a bargain. Under fluorescent lighting we made an enormous pile of Sarreguemines dinner services, wooden trugs, candelabra, zinc bassines, a pale blue front of a buffet (a rebuilding project), a tall green painted walnut door with panels (to be scraped and used as a bedhead perhaps) and a heavily scored low oak table with a deep drawer.

Next day I was due to leave Francoise and her lovely family. As I packed my things into the van she gave me a basket with home produced paté in a large jar, bottles of her home grown grape juice and some little cakes. I had so appreciated her warmth and welcome, and had felt very much part of her family. We promised that we would meet again before too long.

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