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La mer

18 Feb

Took the midday train to Royan, a coastal town erroneously bombed by Allied forces in the winter of 1945—an accident that razed the town and killed 1,200 people—and afterwards reconstructed as part of an “experiment” in urban infrastructure.  The restoration of Royan was deemed a huge success in terms of both functionality and aesthetics.  Personally found the town, though impressively surreal, just moche à pleurer (“ugly enough to cry”):  the church resembles a clunky spaceship; palm trees and cedars grow awkwardly and artifically side by side; the whole centre ville has this weird suburban 2001 Space Odyssey feel about it.  While pride in regeneration after catastrophe is right and beautiful, it’s just too bad that the regeneration had to occur in the 1950s.

Then there was the ocean, the thing that mattered.  Watched the tide come in, slow and brown and hulking, hunkered against the wind on a blue and white striped bench, listening to Georges Brassens’ gullet croon  “Les Copains d’Abord” on the radio.  It’s a song about men and boats, so it fit the day well.

You can’t eat the oysters or clams.  There are lots of things you can’t do on the many beaches in Royan, the small rocky coves and more generous swaths of sand spotting the long walkway along the water.  There is unsupervised swimming a little bit farther up.   Considered it, but swimming in the ocean in February is fun only with company.

A Martian landscape, gray and incomprehensible, unseasonably strewn with strange exercise machines placed in random spots along the path — wet balance beams, mounted wheels to spin in circles, and hilariously, ellipticals.  The houses, or maybe summer vacation retreats, had names like ‘La Lanterne’ and ‘Coupe Vente.’

Found a municipal memorial dedicated to the theme of humor:  savoir rire, c’est savoir vivre.  Knowing how to laugh is knowing how to live.  Noted for future reference.



13 Jan

The two primary landmarks in my quaint French village are les tours, or the towers, a pair of dessicated stone behemoths that dominate the modest Saint Jean skyline.  I have observed in France that, even in the most miniscule of communities, the local tourist office — or, lacking one of those, the municipal council— produces a plethora of multi-lingual publications concerning the local patrimoine of the area — often very local, as in five hundred yards until, but not including, Monsieur Camembert’s westernmost cow pasture.  Even the smallest country bumpkin patches in this country have had some kind of say in French history (either that, or history has had an influence on them).

Les tours, Saint Jean d'Angély

According to the Histoire et Patrimoine brochure produced by the Saint Jean tourist office (l’office de tourisme),  there has been a church, or at least an attached holy significance, at the site since the fifth century CE.  Behind and entirely seperate from the towers are the vestiges of two flying buttresses and a chevet, or headpiece, of an earlier church attributed to the fifteenth century and destroyed in 1568 during the Wars of Religion. 

Flying buttress of the broken wing

Construction of the abbey associated with les tours began in 1741. And believe you me, this thing really was huge.  I feel like a snail on the road of Saint-Jacques-de-Compostelle when I stand underneath the arch of the would-be entrance (the historic route to the ancient pilgramage site in Spain passes through Saint Jean.  There are little gold shells all over France to mark its well-trodden meanderings).   Before the church could be completed, the French Revolution lit an ideological, social and literal fire across the entire country.  Everything traditional and Catholic and French was vilified, so the church was of course ransacked and burned to the ground, again.  The smoking  remants were converted into a jail…organized religion equals lifetime imprisonment?  A fitting transition, perhaps?


In 1899 the locals either came to their senses or were influenced by the mad ravings of concerned historians and finally restored what remained of the edifice.  When I look at the facade of the tours I cannot tell exactly what is older and what is newer, as in 100 years old new.  That must be a good thing. Today rain and moss are once again asserting their insinuating hold, but even in its decripit state I find les tours at once a magnificent relic of the past and a searingly relevant metaphor for the individual life.  They will forever remain unfinished, and yet they’re beautiful and endlessly intricate all the same.  What does fulfilled potential look like anyway?