ONE DAY, TWO TEACHERS

I  head south-west through Poitou-Charentes, the Cognac, region and decide to make a convenient stop-over at Saint-Hilaire-de-Villefranche.   On the way I call in at Saint-Jean-d’Angély because the name sounds so pretty.

I park near some splendid civic buildings then enter the old town and stop by the ‘office de tourisme’ for some information. The lady gives me a plan of the town and suggests I take a look at the well, the clock tower and the abbey.  “Anything else?” I ask. She shrugs as if to say ‘not really’, then seems to have an idea and says “We have a lot of British people living here!”   “Oh,” I ask again “Why is that?”   She looks nonplussed and thoroughly thrown by my question.  Eventually she says “Because they like the cobblestones.”

La Fontaine de Pilori

La Fontaine de Pilori

Sitting in a small square, having a cool drink and gazing at the star attraction for tourists, the ornate renaissance-style well ‘La Fontaine de Pilori’, I see some side notes on the town plan and read that Saint-Jean-d’Angély became a major stage of the Chemin de Saint-Jacques de Compostelle on the Via Tourensis route when the Benedicine abbey was built here in the 11th century on the site of a much older monastery.   The latter had been built to supposedly house the head of John the Baptist.  Ah, I smile, I have been drawn to the chemin again.

I head for the Royal Abbey and can see why we British are attracted to Saint-Jean-d’Angély as it is very charming with its narrow, winding, cobbled streets. I stand looking at the abbey though and am rather disappointed, the dilapidated building is under heavy renovation with construction equipment and dust everywhere. It is clearly no longer an abbey and I wonder what happened to the head of John the Baptist.

An elderly but sprightly lady joins me and exclaims “Oh, but this building is magnificent, you can still see traces of it on the top floors, and the workmen can show you their plans. It will be beautiful again.”   She explains that the building has become a cultural centre.   She herself enjoys “marvellous” activities within it. The lady also tells me that I must be sure to see the abbey towers just through the gates, and on the way I could look in on an artistic ‘atelier’, a workshop, that is taking place in the corner of the square as it is seems very interesting.

I tell this bright-eyed lady that she is more enthusiastic about the town than the tourist office.

The Abbey gates

The Abbey gates

We chat, and after a while we exchange names, and Madame ‘B’ insists I call her Marie-Claude. I then learn that Marie-Claude is not only enthusiastic about the town, but about life itself.

This lady used to be a social worker, working in child protection, until her retirement and after a while she starts to tell me her thoughts about this last, important stage in life.   “You must plan ahead,” she advises. She herself decided upon Saint-Jean-d’Angély five years before her retirement age so that when the end of her working days arrived she had built up her ‘reseau’, her important network of friends, professional colleagues and contacts.  She also involved herself in something which interested her and which gave her company. For Marie-Claude it was amongst other things a book club and an organisation based within the cultural centre before us where older people work with the young on projects, acting as mentors and, well, just connecting.  As Marie-Claude speaks about her projects, and books that I might also like, her eyes are full of contagious enthusiasm.  She also warns me, though, that one should listen to one’s feelings and go with the rhythm they desire. So sometimes she pulls back from her activities and has a quiet calm period if that is what she needs.

Marie-Claude is an inspiration. I imagine she has never been anything other than positive in her life and clearly gets much joy from everything she does.    We have made friends, we swap email addresses. I explain that I can see my ‘third age’ approaching and that her words have been very informative, for which I am grateful.   So she recaps. “Plan ahead. Get involved. Be active but respect your rhythms.”

The unfinished twin towers of the abbey

The unfinished twin towers of the abbey

Twin towers rear

After obeying Marie-Claude’s instructions and looking in on the atelier and the towers, which were apparently never finished, I head off to my chambre d’hôtes. As I arrive at the farm I smile at the sign which welcomes pilgrims.

Accueil pelerins

The farmyard is all higgledy-piggledy and a little chaotic and two other paying guests help me find my way from the gate, where no-one has answered the bell, through outbuildings full of what looks like years and years of accumulated junk, to emerge into a jewel of a garden, abundant, lushly-green and in full flower.
Garden 1

I go on to pass one of the most pleasant evenings of my journey so far.

I soon meet François and Marie-Hélène and am given the fussily decorated ‘Violet Room’ with its collection of empty perfume bottles and enormous, high bed.

View from my bedroom window

View from my bedroom window

The house is crammed with ‘stuff’ everywhere – old lace dresses thrown over a screen, hats hanging from hooks or from the wall, dolls, frills, baskets, pictures, birdcages, cuddly toys, ornaments, beads. It is someone’s artistic style and it assaults the eye in a disorderly, eccentric but thoroughly enchanting way.  In the barn-like dining room, with its huge ancient fireplace, there seem to be decades of cooking implements and farm equipment covering every space, shelf and wall.  It looks as if nothing has ever been thrown away.

As I have an evening picnic in the warm, colourful garden a hen runs amok around me, a cat tries repeatedly to jump on the table and a large friendly dog curls up under my feet.  There is such a peaceful atmosphere I feel as if I am in heaven.

My friendly hen

My friendly hen

François shuffles over and asks if there is anything at all I need that he can provide and stops to pass the time. He seems much older than Marie-Hélène, maybe late seventies or eighties, and turns out to be one of the gentlest, quietest souls I have ever met. François has a kindly sparkle in his eyes and when you look into them you can see goodness going all the way through him, like a stick of rock.  He slowly circulates the rambling property where guests seem holed up in all sorts of hidden places, making sure that everyone is happy. He has time for everyone, taking as long as it takes to help and be friendly.

When I ask about the farm I discover that it is named after an ancestor and it has been in his family since 1640!   When I exclaim he goes to get old black and white family photographs to show me and to tell stories about. As we talk other people just pass by, some in overalls, carrying a pole here, a piece of machinery there, it just seems to be open house.

Looking towards my bedroom window

Looking towards my bedroom window

The evening passes serenely. There is something about this place that makes me feel at home, calm, and so happy and I sleep contentedly and well.

What I learn from François is that if you are calm, if you are at peace within, you ‘emit’ this aura and others feel it too.   It doesn’t matter how organised or disorganised your home is, what your artistic tastes are, but if you are true to yourself and are happy in your own skin others ‘get it’.

After a breakfast served by François, taking as long as it takes, I settle the bill.  25 euros all in. This may well be the cheapest bed and breakfast I will find in France, but it has been the richest.

Comments
5 Responses to “ONE DAY, TWO TEACHERS”
  1. Pascale says:

    Well done! Glad you managed to open your eyes and heart to so pleasant places and people – and you have such an ability to share it!

  2. Manda says:

    My parents are now living in Poitou-Charentes, I’m delighted that you found charm in the region. Their little village is indeed charming, but driving there I was struck rather by the desolation of so many small towns in central France. The atmosphere of decay and deprivation arising from austerity, and the massive tracts of agricultural land that speak to the loss of many small livelihoods. Perhaps I am just not enough of a Marie-Claude!

  3. steve Hodgson says:

    Another excellent read, sounds wonderful.

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