Chapter 25: Tarting, Tasting and Trivialising in Trivy

Life had once again become idyllic in the rolling hills of Burgundy, where we took up residence outside a village called Trivy for six weeks from mid-July to 31 August.  Liberally sprinkled with villages, markets and sights, we liberally sprinkled great wine into our mouths in the company of wonderful food and friends.

Trivy numbers 20 stone houses, a church and a hall.  Ours is not included in the 20; we are 600 metres in a short shamble outside of this ancient village.  Our L-shaped house is La Champ du Four, another of Bruce and Judy’s, and it is divine.  Built in the 17th century, it has been modernised onto three levels including two bedrooms and a bathroom under the eaves,  the main bedroom and bathroom on the first level, and a lounge room I call “the North Pole” (it is blessedly cool) underneath those.  I use that as my study. 

Our living quarters are in the converted barn, half below ground level, with its cool tiled floors, a major kitchen, refectory table seating 12 and sitting room with telly and library, connected by a sensibly-sized staircase to the bedrooms upstairs.  Under the old house is the laundry, from which I enjoy shooing small lizards, and another loo, woodshed (not needed) and a cellar.  Outside is an antique well that still works.

The whole is half covered with a grapevine which attracts thousands of disinterested (in us) bees on hot days, on a large plot of land including a horse chestnut tree, a fir/pine/conifer type tree, outdoor seating and garden beds.  Surrounded by a corn field on one side, harvested wheat bags (Minties) to the rear emitting a sweet, sugary, fermented smell and a cow farm in front, we delight in this country experience.  Situated on a rise into Trivy, we have distance vistas of wheat fields, forests and vines.  It is heavenly.  You can feel your soul relaxing and escaping into creativity.

Every Saturday the farmer tows a trailer of wheat to “our cows”, and their moos and jostling to get to the byre for the next two days until it has been devoured are a delight.  The cows provide hours of interest and entertainment as we drink, eat, read and write out of doors under the trees.  The cows here are Charolais, named after “Charolles” up the road a bit, and are coloured sandy white to warm-brown.  Bred for beef, we know “our” 16 calves across the road will be made into Boeuf Bourgignon one day.  We don’t mind that.  We haven’t named them.

Aside from regular visits to Cluny, there is one more digression on shopping.  Three kilometres away is the village of Dompierre-les-Ormes.  From our bedroom window we see it beckoning from the distance and firstly drove over there to find a nearer café than Cluny.  Dompierre also has a village church with a lovely warm orange interior, a grocery shop, a boulangerie for our bread and La Poste for our bank.  To reach Dompierre one must descend one kilometre to the Lac at Chandon which supports two rival restaurants, then ascend a winding, steep two kilometres. 

I know this road intimately, every curve and farm and vista, as I have walked it most days to buy our bread.  It’s the perfect length and doesn’t stress out my poor broken feet or hips too much.  ‘Keet’ then drives over to join me for coffee and a chat with the delightful “Heve”, the coffee-shop owner, a scratch of his black Lab “Princesse”, and drives me home, where I write my play, book and blogs.  THIS is the life I want to live.  It misses only my own dog, and all the people I love, to make it perfect.

In our six weeks in Burgundy we saw many of the local sights.  These included the small but famous village of Charolles and the “Cow Centre”, while further along is the significant town of Paray Le Monial.  It is significant because it contains a major pilgrimage centre based on the 12th century Sacre-Coeur church which is a mini-Cluny Abbey, except it’s still standing.

One day in Paray, a Christian convention was in full swing.  People were parading around the town, to and from the showgrounds, with id badges swinging from their necks and beatific smiles beaming from their faces.  We should have guessed, but made the trek to the showgrounds anyway to find all the types of ecclesiastical marquees you could wish for.  They were all there.  We could go shopping for Judaism, Buddhism, Islam, Anglicism and the big one, Catholicism.  At their marquees we could look at sophisticated videos interpreting the relevant scriptures, meet counsellors or buy charms.   These were the break-out marquees.  There was one giant tent that could seat two thousand people in religious unity.  One wonders what they had in common and hoped they could teach the world how to live together with different beliefs.

At Charolles, seeing as how we were living in the world centre of breeding, production and distribution of Charolais beef, we visited the Cow Centre, aka La Maison du Charolais. We spent three hours there and it was totally educational, ending with a beef tasting and glass of wine.  This is France after all.

We learned every Charolais calf is given a numbered identity card at birth.  About 450,000 are born each year.  That number follows it through all subsequent sales, via the abbatoir, to the butcher, to one’s plate.  The best restaurateurs buy the best cows (we went through a simulator where we had to pick the best cow from studying and prodding its rump), so it’s important they get the Red Label cow they identified under the AOC – Charolais de Bourgogne– and not some half-breed only good for cassoulet. 

We learned about the diet of these tall and magnificent beasts.  They graze from March-November, on the 4,500 specialist Charolais beef farms, then are brought into barns to fatten up on hay, cereals and silage.  About 280,000 of them are sold to Italy to fatten up, where their identity number goes with them.  Doesn’t everyone fatten up in Italy?

Most farmers in this region grow their own fodder and are responsible for managing their own hedgerows too under ancient protocols.  The 33 cuts of meat were explained, and I learned why a fillet steak is so special.  We studied foods, grains, seasonal variations, climate change, export markets, carbon markets, hedgerow management, cooperatives and abattoirs.  There were 20 minutes of best beef recipes on video, and they played it for me in English.  We followed one calf through its life-cycle and finally tasted it when it was 18 months old and was slaughtered along with 160,000 others this season.  It was very tender.

There is a livestock market in Charolles every Wednesday, and when I was later in another country, Keet went to this market alone to enhance his rump-prodding skills.  He said it was overwhelming.

The Charollais farmers also grow Charollais sheep for mutton.  To distinguish, when it’s lamb it’s spelled with two Ls, beef with one, ie:  “Charolais”.  Anyway, France has about 4.5 million head of Charolais, its most common beef cow, and I find Australia too is crossing over to the breed as it grows fast, adapts easily and has a good carcass.  Perhaps back home we may work as Rump-Prodders. 

From beef production I segue to beef-eating.  Our friend Penny dropped by with her delightful parents Robert and Gaye Herbert on their odyssey through France, Italy and Croatia.  They were our first Australian visitors and it was wonderful to catch up on home news and hear the accent again.  It was one of France’s really hot days.  Planning to eat at the Auberge du Lac at the bottom of our hill, we found it was closed on Tuesdays so ate at its rival, Le Restaurant du Midi.  We were lucky to get a seat in the relatively cooler interior, but being late arrivals most meat meals had “finished”.  I think we ate tuna salad, but this lovely family enjoyed seeing our beautiful house later for coffee and cake before they continued to Lyon.

On another occasion Keet and I ate at the Auberge du Lac and found we could not finish the five generous courses they provided in their “menu du jour”.  On this occasion I ordered melt-in-your-mouth Boeuf Bourguignon.  At another time, we went to the Moulin de Brandon at Brandon and enjoyed a gorgeous dinner, home-cooked, where I ordered very rare Charolais beef and thought it was the best steak ever. 

When I say “home-cooked”, it seems most restaurants are run out of someone’s living room, cooked by a Maman or Papa out the back and served by their family working front-of-house.  The Australian concept of a “restaurant” with regulations, licences, hired staff, themed meals and modern structures is quite lost in France.  Instead, you have to ask the locals – “where is the best restaurant”?  It’s generally not the High Street one that the tourists go to. 

Instead it’s in an ancient stone building in a rural setting, seats a maximum of about 20 people under dark timbered beams on flagstone floors, the cuisine is only ever French, there are only two choices of each course, food is cooked in a concealed kitchen that probably never saw a Restaurant Inspector and the owner is the waiter is the chef is the cleaner, or related to her.  The food is reasonably priced, ingredients are grown in the garden or bought at the market that day, and it is gorgeous.  One feels like an invited guest at such an establishment, not a customer.  The family is always keen to know your name and where you are from, and by the end of the meal, and lashings of champagne, wine and their mysterious home-grown, not-for-sale dessert liquor, you are best friends and promise to return next week.  We invariably pay about 45 euros per head with wine, and try and do this once a week.  

At Moulin de Brandon above, his wife was away the day we’d booked, so he only took 10 people as that was all he felt he could manage, and he greeted, waited and cooked for the 10 of us.  It’s that level of trust and hospitality I am commending.  I yearn for such informality, friendliness, warmth, absence of regulation, (if you get sick you will tell people, so no one actually feeds you things that will kill you in this context), and vastly generous hospitality to invade our country, and be extended to strangers as unstintingly as the French local restaurant offers it.

It was not only the French who offered unstinting generosity and warmth in this period.  We’d learned that Graeme Simsion, (The Rosie Project/Effect/Result, Two Steps Forward), and Anne Buist, with whom we have a small acquaintance, and who are great Camino wanderers and authors, had a house in nearby Tramayes.  I contacted him to suggest a coffee in Cluny and he immediately offered dinner at his house.  Curious to learn how other Australians live and manage a home in France six months every year, we drove over one evening.

Graeme had cooked us a banquet and we settled out of doors to eat it, at a house eerily like ours – ancient stone walls, rambling levels, wandering vines, modern interiors, beautiful setting.  Our fig and cheese entrée was grilled on the Weber and Graeme opened our Monbazillac offering at the start of the meal, because it is a great dessert wine to eat with figs.  He was correct.  Our Master Chef then produced a lavish seafood platter with about six or seven varieties of crustacean including a lobster killed that day.  (If you’ve read “Rosie”, you will laugh at this reference as we did.)  By now he’d opened some Chablis, our Grand Cru for the meat (pork) course, and so it progressed into a delightful evening, with much more found in common including the Camino, writing, acting, study, IBM, IT industry, people, music and books.  Much, much later that night, after more wine, dessert, coffee, chocolate, a house tour and a sampling of home-brewed liqueurs, we drove home on the circuitous country roads narrowly missing six cats, 11 rabbits and one limping deer. 

Graeme and Anne were setting off in the following days to walk the Camino to Rome for 86 days, gathering material for their next book.  I was flying to Romania on 15 August for six days of judging the Canopy Formation World Cup, Keet was planning to join me in Lyon for two days to celebrate my birthday, before I flew out again on 23 August to Italy to be a Jury member at the World Cup of Wingsuit Flying. This was a Red Letter night, a celebration of Trivy, Burgundy, France and all it offers.  We look forward to reuniting with joy next year when we are all home again.

PS:  You may be wondering, with all this food and wine talk, about blood alcohol limits in France?  Yes, they have rules and limits; it is 0.05, the same as Australia, and wine and alcohol are everywhere, all the time, and expected as part of the culture.  But we have never had a conscious thought about it or wondered if we were over; we are not, of course, because we are sensible Seniors living abroad.  Instead, the French have a healthy attitude that if you want to kill yourself, you are welcome to go ahead and do it, as long as you don’t kill anyone else.  With narrower roads, a much slower speed of travel, rural communities looking after each other, multiple home-based restaurants accessible on foot, plenty of great public transport, and a culture focussed on food and wine, it is less common in France than in Australia that alcohol impairment causes road deaths.  And there is not the perception of heavy-handed control we feel at home.  Maybe French folk self-regulate better than we do, because when people don’t see a barrier, there’s nothing to push on?

Our time in Trivy was too short but I have more to say.  We were blessed with another heat wave, a cool house, great people to hang with, beautiful local villages to enjoy, country air, food, wine and Charolais in all directions including on our plates.  Next time, I shall discourse on the Route des Grands Crus in Burgundy and our visit to Dijon.  I do not want my readers to leave this beautiful region yet either.

Chapter 24: Monks, Mares and Money

Cluny in Saone-et-Loire, (Burgundy), has two claims to fame:  it is the site of the impressive ruins of the even-more impressive Cluny Abbey, a former Benedictine monastery, and the location of Équivallée – Haras National de Cluny, a centre for equine breeding and equestrian excellence in France.  Cluny, therefore, since the 4th century has been a centre of wealth and remains so.  We spend most of our money there too.

It was a huge relief on 15 July to escape noisy, beautiful, hot Thonon-les-Bain and drive 234 kilometres north and west, skirting Geneva and heading up the A6, past Lyon, then west at Macon 32 kilometres to Trivy.

Our first day at Trivy was the usual – lug in the 122 kilos of luggage, unpack it, get the Wifi working and go shopping.  As Trivy has zero shops, I mean zero, “shopping” means a trip to Cluny.  As it happened, we had to go to Macon for various technology-related reasons and did our first food shop there; but forever after it was Cluny, 13 kilometres away.

Our first foray into Cluny was exploratory and researched; or so we thought.  We knew about Cluny Abbey and had read up on the life of the Cluniac monks.  Imagine our surprise therefore, when driving on the slow circuit around the town, our car was stopped by some pedestrian lights and five fantastic horses crossed in front, adorned in brightly polished leather and ridden by athletic people, perfectly groomed and attired for the show ring.

Seeking a parking place, we passed fields of horses, paddocks of camper vans, vast stretches of ancient stone stables, and myriad show jumping fields, rings and centres.  On a heavingly hot day at the start of France’s second heat wave, what could they be doing?

We parked against the wall of the 13th century refectory, but didn’t know that at the time.  We parked there because it was a tall wall which cast shade, and have parked there ever since.  First stop was the Office de Tourisme  to learn about the Abbey’s opening hours and prices, then it was a meander through mediaeval Cluny, down a one kilometre long, winding street, gently sloping to the river.  Here we identified future providers of hair, nails, cards and post, got some knives sharpened and returned to the Abbey Museum.

The Basilica at Cluny Abbey is huge.  I should say was huge, but its outline and presence remain immense.  It was the largest basilica in Christendom for over 500 years until St Peter’s was built in Rome starting 1506, (and the Papacy deliberately made that a few feet longer, “they” say,  to claim the title by 1626).  Today, only one of its eight grand towers is standing, some of its nave, some of its chapels, some of the monks’ houses in the Abbey, granaries,  watch towers, old crenelated walls surrounding a vast acreage where the monks grew food, and an artfully constructed outline of the basilica’s presence is laid through Cluny’s streets, so that one may be  reminded of its antique vastness. 

I mean, 1200 columns held it up!  The ceilings were 189 metres high!  It was enormous.  These columns measure metres across, and one can stand in its outline today and imagine how huge this place was.  It is stupendously breath-taking.  The museum that care-takes it provides audio guides in English, a plan of the base, and keeps you entertained for hours wandering the Basilica’s and the Abbey’s multiple remains.  I think it cost €12.  It is worth more than that, but then, Cluny is wealthy.  Why?

Back in 910, William I, Duke of Aquitaine, bequeathed vineyards, fields, meadows, woods, waters, mills, serfs and land to the Cluny monks, “untied”.  He even forbade the Pope from being able to seize or divide them and placed a curse on anyone who tried.  In other words, it was “independent”. 

Usually such a gift would:

1.  Ensure a son of the household was always the Abbot, thereby ensuring his wealth in perpetuity
2. Require the monks to pay a tithe or annual tax to the Duke
3. Insist the Ducal family had royal privileges, a royal box, royal tombs, and a proprietary interest, and
4. Utilise its resources to feed and minister to the Ducal family,

… but he gave it away “free”.  I mean, he must have been mad; or extremely wealthy.

Actually, William was a holy Duke who saw the gift as an act of homage to God (I bet HE got First Class to Heaven), wanted to separate church from State, and stipulated only two things, that hospitality be given to pilgrims, the poor and strangers, and that the monks prayed for his family.  As they prayed 12 hours a day, there’s a few more First Class Aquitainie tickets, right there.    Today it is a stop on one of the four French Caminos.

Berno, the first Abbot, was installed in 910 and set about building the mother of all churches.  One asks how the funds were raised and who built it?  Oh, slaves, peasants, serfs and prisoners did the heavy work, while the 60 Cluny monks scared the bejesus out of the local population so intensely that they handed over vast amounts of their wealth in penance, retribution and bribes to escape to a Business Class After-Life, First Class being occupied by the Aquitaines.  This was the way of feudal times – has anything changed?

Bring on several more Abbots and the Basilica was finished in 1124.  The Cluniac Order supported a network of over 10,000 in priories and chapter houses and was the envy of all clergy as far as Rome.  The 60 core monks became incredibly wealthy intensely scaring the Bejusus out of people, and adorned themselves in fine robes made of silken embroidery, drank from golden cups, were supplied with the finest meats and wines from distant fields, and steadfastly added gold and golden objects to their wealth. 

They even hired people to do the monks’ field work, admitted women into the order in the 11th century and spent their days only in prayer in these inspiring surroundings.  From 1334 they maintained a town house in Paris, now The Hotel de Cluny.  They became international statesmen, and the monastery at Cluny was the richest, best endowed and most prestigious religious institution in Europe, with enormous global influence as its monks became bishops, cardinals and four Popes, preaching a strict Benedictine order of discipline, while its dependent priories and chapters widely extended.

Their primary influence was from 950 to the early 12th century, when this Order became so important and rich that kings and Popes began to look at it with strange fear and greed.  The Cistercians, jealous of Cluny’s influence, preached a stricter, more ascetic religion, and in a series of ecclesiastical struggles during the Papal Schism of 1378-1409, then the Religious Wars in 1545, (Heaven help them, the Cluny monks at one time supported Protestantism!), the Abbey fell into disrepute, its riches were stripped away (those that hadn’t already been used to maintain 1200 columns and 189 metre high ceilings) and St Peter’s was built (size really matters).

In the next 400 years it fell into decline as its status diminished, and the Cluniac Order finally was suppressed by the French Revolution in 1790.  The basilica became a prime target for looters.  Actually, they didn’t just loot it, in 1810 they destroyed it– tearing down its walls, columns and ceilings for stone, removing everything that glittered.  In this way empires too are tumbled.

By 1823 it was sold as a stone quarry, and a healthy amount of local edifices were built from bits of Cluny’s basilica.  Some of the new buildings that sprang up around it were built over the top of it, and remain so today as gracious, beautiful La Belle Epoche structures, (but none has 189 metre ceilings).

It was due to an American archaeologist in 1927 that its revival commenced.  Kenneth Conant of Harvard University found part of its ruins under a hotel that was being built.  He dug some more, found some columns, researched old papers and gradually re-established the outline of the Abbey through the streets and plazas of Cluny until 1950.  The remaining tower has been preserved and the museum does a great job of explaining all that.

Whenever we go to Cluny, we remind ourselves we are walking through the ancient nave, and always stop and marvel at its size.  I hope you get to see it one day too.  It is marvellous.

The Équivallée – Haras National is one of those buildings constructed out of it, by Napoleon actually, on top of its bones.  In the 1800s, this was the centre of breeding and riding excellence in France.  Instead of monks, it grew and bred stallions and became famous world-wide with the financial support of aristocrats who wished to protect and refine French horse breeds like Le Percheron.  In the past two centuries, the Haras extended to 22 other centres around France which comprised the National Stud. 

It attracted breeders, riders, saddle-makers, blacksmiths, farmers, equine nutritionists, horse vets, horse riding instructors and their retainers.  It became a centre of excellence for training riding instructors.  It was this centre that got Equestrian events added to the Olympic Games.  That’s pretty foundational, and smacks of huge bribes – not much has changed since the Cluny monks really.

While the National Stud part was outsourced to private enterprise five years ago, the Équivallée maintains its horsey-focus in those old buildings built out of bits of Cluny Abbey and provides a twice weekly equine “show” during the summer months.  As we have little interest in seeing animals performing unnatural acts, we haven’t seen it yet.  It is called “Davai” and runs on Tuesdays and Fridays at 2100h.  Nevertheless, we bought a tour of the Haras and it was beautiful.

Also, Cluny is one of the centres of the French Grand Prix of show jumping, and we were lucky enough to see that.  It was a blisteringly hot day when we took cover under a marquee, sat alongside the breeches and boots “set”, and watched sublime horses conquering the course of 16 jumps set at 1.4 metres.  The requirement for the riders to wear jackets was waived due to the high temperature.  We weren’t wearing ours either. 

Like all sports, we got involved, read the papers, learned their names, and started clapping for our favourites as the course shortened into the finals, and the day grew hotter.  We drank wine and ate les frites.  Eventually our favourite man and horse won his leg.  I mean, of the Grand Prix.  It was a vastly relaxing and enjoyable day.

As well as all the money spent on Cluny by monks and equestriennes, Cluny is the centre for our shopping too, and most of our eating.  We visit there two or three times a week for Carrefour, the Thursday outdoor market, the Wednesday night market with stalls, bands, dancing and drinking, our favourite lunchtime restaurant La Nation where we are known to the owners, our hair salon and beauty parlour.  We have bought clothes and cards and post from Cluny.  We have seen the “Cars of Hollywood” visit, and been to a fashion parade in the streets.  It is a lovely town;  a beauteous joy to wander through, not too heavy with tourists who mainly come to see the Abbey on day trips, and has narrow winding paved streets. 

Approaching and leaving, the green fields are dotted with shining, grazing horses and Charolais cattle.  Several chateaux nearby make it a great base for exploring, and the Burgundy Route Grands Cru is near.  There is more to be written on this heavenly region and its rolling hills, great views and grapevines. 

At the end of our forays into Cluny we return into the absolute peace of the countryside to our farmhouse in Trivy, in a location where we are passed more often by tractors than cars.  I wonder if our house is also built from bits of Cluny Abbey?  It’s a humbling thought.

Chapter 18: Twisting in Thonon

Thonon-les-Bains is a busy, heaving city on the shores of Lac Leman.  It is trying very hard to be liked and we tried very hard to like it despite its twists and complications.  In the end, we preferred its position to its personality.

Our relief was real when we arrived in Thonon-les-Bains to take up our one month residence in this complicated city.  The relief was because we were met, escorted to our garage, the Monster Rental Hulk (see Chapter 17 which is still only half-written so you cannot just yet),  just fitted inside that by dint of me vacating the car first and Keith scraping along the wall after the car was parked, and we were shown the way through the back of our building into our apartment on the 6th (top) floor in La Residence Panoramique.  The views from the apartment on one side to the Lac and the other to the mountains of “le Dent d’Oche”, (locally “the broken tooth”), were superb.

As with all things in Thonon, what could have been perfect then threw a twist.  The magnificent views in either direction were marred by block after block of other apartments, and we were just fortunate enough that ours was a smidge higher than they.  The other bummer was that our lovely two bedroom apartment’s two huge wardrobes, as viewed on Air BNB and chosen for that reason, were stuffed with the owner’s possessions and locked.  We were allocated a measly 90 cm of hanging space for our 120 kilos.

At this point I threatened to cancel the rental on the basis of fraud, and the concierge charged out to Brico Depot to procure two clothes racks.  Tensions lightened a lot when I saw the quality and size of the racks.  We now had over six metres of hanging space and never filled them.

After he’d gone, we faced the prospect of lugging three heavy suitcases, two large packing boxes, two computer bags, three shopping bags filled with A. Hangers, B. Bathroom bottles, and C. Kitchen bottles, plus a bag of food up the steps from the garage to the door, up the steps from the door to the garden, into the lobby, and up six flights in the tiny lift.  While these things could be postponed and done gradually, to me a nest is not complete until we are completely installed, so we slowly, in dirty clothes did all the lugging, box by heavy box.

Many of the items I unpacked we hadn’t seen since Belves, six long weeks ago, and it forced a cull.  If it was a Winter item we hadn’t worn this Winter, chances were we wouldn’t wear it next Winter, so it got piled into the small suitcase.  Other Winter stuff I hung in the 90cm tiny space, and everything else fitted perfectly onto those divine racks erected in our second bedroom which also became my office.

We were ready to explore Thonon, and after a supermarket shop at Casino in the base of our building, we set out.  A postscript to the unpacking saw us at some time in the next weeks visiting Homebox in Geneva, buying a small double-thick carton, and mailing 15 kilos of stuff home to Mum that we didn’t want to wear again this year, but didn’t want to throw away either.  If you think this means we are now 15 kilos lighter though, we are not.  We’ve bought at least that much and our inventory of bags, boxes, packs and cases remains the same.

Our apartment was high above a busy commercial shopping area with through-traffic on a main thoroughfare.  The convenience of it meant we could take the lift down to the supermarket, pharmacie, onglerie (nail parlour), hair salon, post office, card shop, clothes shops, boulangerie, charcuterie/traiteur, boucherie and shoe shops and be in any of those places inside one minute.  We also became voyeurs, enjoying our evening aperitifs from the spying vantage point six levels above the street, and it was FASCINATING. The twist was that at night the noise was stupendous echoing up the canyon of that street lined with its six storey apartment blocks.  I grew to loathe the whining mosquito sound of two-stroke motor bikes.

Fortunately, the apartment had double and triple glazed thick glass windows with extra protection provided by shutters.  It could be made noise-free.  The double-twist with pike was that in Thonon we had France’s first heat wave and there was no air-conditioning in our flat.  At night, the cooling breezes off the Lac were a joy and enabled us to sleep in comfort – no wet towels were required other than on three or four nights – if “comfort” can be described as wearing ear plugs to block out the shrill edge of those bikes’ motors.

We soon learned why there were so many motor bikes.  Thonon is positioned on a cliff top overlooking Lac Leman.  It’s why the views are so glorious.  It’s also very conveniently placed to take a ferry across the Lac to Lausanne where I had to go to do some work for the FAI, and which is why we chose Thonon as the closest point to Lausanne in Switzerland, other than Evian which is way too expensive to live in. 

However, that cliff is steep – really steep.  Therefore, most people have a small motor bike to get up and down the steep streets, and that’s partly why it’s such a noisy city.  The twist to that is, we learned that we could walk down to the port where we spent many happy times viewing the boats, learning about the catch of fera or perch, visiting the fishing museum, paying homage to each of the four hotly competitive bars/restaurants for my newly discovered favourite sunset drink – the Mango Mojito – and strolling with the other health-niks alongside the shore of our beautiful Lac, but then we didn’t have to heave up the steep street afterwards.  We rode the Funiculaire on a regular basis and should have bought a season ticket.  It’s over 100 years old and does the job perfectly of transporting three people down and bringing 32 people back up its savage incline for one euro return. 

Sadly, on the Eve of Bastille Day when we desperately would have welcomed its services, it had closed for the night.  (see Chapter 23: Bastille Day Eve).

From our building, it was a short 200 metres to enter the traffic-free old town and market, and I wished we’d stayed there as I think our Thonon experience would have been different.  It has cobblestoned streets, meandering alleys with arches between buildings to hold them up, a beautiful church which truly functioned as a community hall – there were always functions on there – a Mairie of grandeur, fabulous gardens on the cliff tops overlooking those views, and traffic-free zones. 

At one time, we were fortunate to witness at the Mairie, the civic welcome given to the Thonon-les-Bains Black Panthers, a team which had just won the French National Championships of American Football.  The townsfolk were supremely underwhelmed.  I think the 17 other people in attendance were friends and family.

On another occasion we found the 12 cinema complex was showing Rocketman in English, a movie we thoroughly enjoyed with nine other English speakers. We also explored the lovely Chateau Ripaille on a small peninsula, built in the 12th century, once possessed of seven towers but now only has four, bought and modernised in La Belle Epoche era by a textile manufacturer, and still owned by the family of Louis XVI’s finance minister.

On our third night in Thonon, we learned there would be a music festival so we explored all the performances over some hours then danced in the streets with our new community and felt a sense of that Belvesian belonging we had been missing.  See Facebook Post on the day – also copied below for those who are not on Facebook.

Sadly, in a city of 35,000 people it is hard to feel a sense of community and belonging, especially as we were there only four weeks.

But Market Day is Thursday and I soon developed a relationship with my Poissonniere, Fromagerie and cafe.  Chris underneath us did our new hair cuts and colours.  Janey my nail parlour friend was a great asset when it came to learning about Thonon.  She had lived here for 11 years initially as a Vietnamese bride to a French man, but they were now separated and she had her eyes on a Swiss man as they earn more money; such practical candour.

As a base for exploring other places, Thonon was ideal.  We visited Yvoire down the coast to the west and it was picture perfect, (see Chapter 19: Coasting).  Beyond Yvoire we spent days in Geneva enjoying the Jet D’Eau, visiting CERN, (see Chapter 21: The Particle Article), wondering and wandering (and being tempted) at the Patek Phillipe watch museum and navigating Geneva’s incredibly expensive shops on foot.

To the east we went to Vevey and Montreux several times, to see the sights, attend an Elton John concert, (see Chapter 20: Cool, Cooler, Coolest), eat Swiss chocolate until we burst, revere the legend of Charles Chaplin, (see Chapter 22:  Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) and find the source of Smoke on the Water.

Heading south we went to Annecy for a reminisce, Chamonix for lunch, and Italy for coffee, (see Cool, Cooler, Coolest again).  To the north, I crossed Lac Leman twice by ferry to work at the FAI and once on a pleasure cruise with Keith to visit the Olympic Museum and wander old Lausanne and its three hills.  These were covered in Facebook posts which I will partially copy below for those not on Facebook.

Thonon les Bains has les Bains – the Thermal Springs developed in La Belle Epoche, a time when people and doctors truly believed that salty, smelly mineral water consumed and/or bathed in for three weeks, accompanied by severe diets and harsh endurance walks could cure everything.  Present day authorities would give credit only to the diet and walks, but people still fill their water bottles daily at the fresh water outlets in Thonon.  Interestingly, they fill plastic water bottles labelled “Evian”. 

By the way, Evian, marketing slogan “Live Young”, still supplies fresh, snow-melted, spring water from several sources near Evian, now in 100% recyclable plastic bottles, (they say), to the upmarket water market.  Millions of people buy this water to give themselves social cachet.  It is priced above other waters and “tastes” differently from tap water.  I tried to compare it with Thonon water but my palate for water must be remarkably under-developed.  I have never understood this need to buy water in plastic bottles, and am a one woman army when it comes to picking up and recycling plastic bottles I find on my walks or at the beach, but then I am a Senior who walks a lot in order to “live young”.  But such is the power of that brand.

We left Thonon on 15 July to drive to our new abode in Trivy in Burgundy, a mere 226 kilometres away, where we took up residence in a 17th century, cool, ivy covered farmhouse with half metre thick walls and all mod cons.  It was only here, where the mooing of the cows, the birdsong and the occasional tractor disturbed our peace, that I realised how much I had missed the silence of the countryside. 

Noisy, bustling, practical, accessible and fun, Thonon-les-Bains served its purpose and remains a fond memory of a city I never need to re-visit.



One of those “Travel-Luck” things happened on our third night here in Thonon-les-Bains.  I learned from my Nail Parlour professional, Janey, (Nail Parlour professionals are more knowledgeable than Taxi Drivers because they largely cover the hyper-communication activity of the Network Feminine), that the Thonon annual music festival would happen Friday night, and all we had to do was walk out of our front door to enjoy it.

So that’s what we did.

After sheets of rain, thunder and lightning had threatened to blow up all the planned electricity, it cleared to an occasional drizzle by 1900h.

I must say, the French have done it again, this time when it comes to running a street festival.  I love France.  A wide variety of acts were strategically positioned around the lovely streets such that their chords did not collide.  The Church of St Francis hosted an organ recital at 2000 and a choral performance later at 2115.  A rock act was positioned in Place des Arts where five other acts would appear until 0100, and near the central fountain was a large group of drummers.  The drummers were vibrant and fun.  A protest band occupied one small tent, while another kept a jazz group dry.

My personal favourite nearly was the band of youngsters playing terrific American R & B right outside our balcony, but the prize for me and a thousand others was the group dancing set up outside the Hotel de Ville.  A dance floor had been laid, lighting and sound provided, and professional dance leaders taught hundreds townsfolk some reels, jazz and freeform dancing.  It was WONDERFUL to see a whole community getting up, dancing and bonding together.  The smiles on their faces were fabulous, and there was a warmth and togetherness in the air that I just loved.  I got right in there too to grab some of this vibe.  You know what they say about towns that dance together? …

However, it wasn’t just the selection and positioning of the acts that made this music festival great.  It’s been running since 1934 so I guess they’ve had practice but I could not help but note and admire the other stuff like money management, waste disposal and crowd management, that can ruin other music festivals.

For starters, the whole town turned out, which kept it nice.  This meant adults, teenagers, little kids, babies and dogs all strolled the streets together, getting into the atmosphere.  The French are very good at including their families in everything.  Even at 2330 little kids could be seen playing, dancing and singing.  I love that.  It means kids are exposed to Life early and given responsibility, which they accept and respect later.  In the chorale recital in the church, one of the most tattooed, pierced, be-ringed and plaited personages you could ever see accompanied his mother to the choir’s performance.  It looked so wrong for that type to be there, yet he clearly enjoyed being out singing with Maman.  At the other end, white-hairs were joyfully dancing in the group dance or showing the youngsters how to rock and roll.  The police presence was minimal.  This was a town enjoying itself.

I love their solution for waste disposal.  Alcohol was sold in “goblets” for €1.50 each, with €1.00 refundable on the cup and a request to return it within one hour.  These were sold by two lovely old ladies.  Who could deny them?

The big one for me was money-management, which provided safety and security to the various caterers scattered throughout and meant they did not have to deal with cash.  Instead, customers went to the “Bank” to buy “Bobs” and “Pippos”, which could then be exchanged for a variety of food.  At the end of the night, I guess the caterers returned their collections of bobs and pippos to the “bank” for payment.  It is a terrific system.

See some of the joy in the pictures, with further descriptions where needed.  We turned in at midnight, and it still wasn’t messy yet.  I shall check in tomorrow and let you know.  We feel very lucky to have been here for this.  Did I say I loved France yet?


Hi Mummy. It was 34 in Geneva today so we got out the hose. Look what we made.


Yesterday (Wednesday) we took a short trip up to Montreux and Vevey. Just an aside – you certainly know when you are in Switzerland – everything is very ordered, very clean and very expensive! We went to pay homage at the commemorative sites of two very great entertainers, one of whom I deem to be a true legend. 
Shuffle forward Mr. Charles Chaplin, a pioneer who laid down a genre of cinema from which we benefit today. He was a giant of the screen, not just with his comedy. Writing and directing such classics as “Modern Times” and “The Great Dictator” cast him into a political and social minefield, and laid the ground for others to follow. He was my father’s favourite actor. I remember when I asked why, his simple reply was “he just made us laugh”. Which during the 30s and the 40s was an essential requirement for day-to-day life. A legend indeed!
Freddie was a great, great vocalist. His work with Queen represents some of the best music ever recorded. And his duet with Montserrat Caballé still gives me goosebumps every bit as much as BohRap and all of the others! I recall crying when Freddie passed away. He was my era and I felt “cheated” somehow of a life so cruelly cut short.
Charlie’s statue is life-size, the Tramp in one of his famous poses. Having seen this (on the waterfront at Vevey) we ventured a little way out of town to his gravesite, a simple stone slab which also accommodates his wife Oona. A beautiful setting for a cinematic icon who spent the last 25 years of his life in Vevey. 

Freddie’s statue is much, much larger than life, and is variously adorned with flowers, notes of love and bracelets. He commands the waterfront at Montreux, and we were lucky to get some pics without including the tourist hordes that were thereabouts. It is a powerful representation of a giant of music.

And just to complete the story we tracked down the Deep Purple/Montreux connection – “Smoke on the Water” is a sculpture just behind Freddie with the notes of the guitar riff emblazoned on the wall. 

Also, we found a fork in Lake Geneva. Presumably the knife had swum away with the spoon. All in all a splendid day.


Lac à lac!
Yesterday (Saturday) we went to Lake Annecy, just over one hour’s drive, to complete our Lake odyssey. Actually it had much more meaning for me than just that. I was last in Annecy in 1962 when I was on a school trip, so I really needed to know if anything had changed!
We first headed for Talloires, a small town along the lakeside about 20 minutes from Annecy. This was where our hotel was all those years ago. Except Talloires has changed and is now a bustling resort town with high-end hotels, high-end cars and high-end people! Surely pupils from Pinner County Grammar School could not have stayed in a place like this. The only thing I could definitely remember about our hotel was that it was right across the road from the lake and there was a row-boat hire place nearby.

I was going to give up all hope when Gail suggested we travel just a bit further around the lake from Talloires. As we rounded a bend in the road – there it was! At least I think it was! Surely we (PCGS pupils) could not have left it in that state? Admittedly it was 57 years ago but it was the only “building” which seemed to conform to “absolute lake frontage”. OK, so the row-boat business was nowhere to be seen but he had probably made his million and moved on.

For the life of me I cannot remember the name of the hotel but we noticed “Belle Rive” in very faded lettering on the side, and then “Hotel Belle Rive” in even more faded lettering on the front. It now looks like a block of very average apartments (still with a great lake view!) with a cycling business occupying part of the ground floor.

Pinner buddies who were there, please help, is this our hotel or not? I still have my diary from the trip, I may have mentioned it in there, but it is buried at the bottom of a packing carton in Melbourne.

Feeling alternately happy (I think I found it) and forlorn (back then, did we really think this was a palace?) we headed for the beautiful town of Annecy. And thankfully it still retains all its old charms, including a canal system to rival Venice – if not in size then in water cleanliness. It was a stinking hot day and the place was packed, huge problem with parking. However it was well worth the effort, there is a beautiful park for strolling/sitting/ watching/eating ice cream, and there were thousands out on the lake in the biggest display of pedalos I have ever seen. A pizza and a couple of very cold drinks in a canal-side restaurant was a great way to round off a memorable day.


Yesterday (Thursday) we went to Lausanne, principally to visit the Olympic Museum. Lausanne is where the IOC is headquartered and was also where Gail had recently completed a couple of days work at the FAI. Being affiliated to the Olympic movement the FAI offered us a couple of free passes to the museum, how could we refuse?
Lausanne is almost directly across the lake from Thonon and a ferry runs a regular 50 minute service to cater for workers and tourists. What a very pleasant way to travel and I think a commute to work like this is far more agreeable than the 7:35 from Brighton Beach to Flinders Street. Winter might well return a different verdict though!
As with any Swiss city/village/town that we have visited the very first thing you notice is the utter cleanliness. All of the civic gardens, abundant with statues and artworks, and decorative plantations along the lakeside are carefully and meticulously looked after. The town itself is attractive and lively, although being built across three sizeable hills makes for some interesting, lung-busting walks. Maybe that’s why the people appear so friendly and superbly fit. What is it about Switzerland? Are there really 8.5 million Roger Federers living there?

First stop though was for coffee, taken at the Hotel d’Angleterre which seemed a strange name until you realised just who was once a guest. If it was good enough for Lord Byron to have coffee there, then it was good enough for us.

The Olympic Museum is superb, well worth even paying for. Plenty of memorabilia and video clips of those special moments from Olympic Games of the last 50-60 years which define my life as well as that of the athletes. The shocking terrorist attacks at Munich in 1972; the archer with the flaming arrow opening Barcelona in 1992; Muhammad Ali opening Atlanta in 1996; Cathy at Sydney in 2000 (Opening Ceremony and 400m). These and many, many more moments are captured beautifully making this an emotional as well as a memorable visit. Cannot recommend highly enough.

For lunch we decided it was about time we had a genuine Swiss fondue. Gail had enquired and we went to the recommended place, just down the road from Byron’s hangout. Well for both of us it was 70’s revisited, couldn’t even tell you the last time we indulged in this. It was so filling, two servings of bread to accommodate all that cheese – delicious!

As a bonus, on our return ferry trip we encountered Yuna, who was delighted to meet us, as we were with her. She is 13 years old and in remarkably good shape. Lots of pats and tummy rubs (for Yuna!) completed a truly wonderful day.

Chapter 23: Bastille Day Eve – 13 July 2019

Our penultimate night in Thonon-les-Bains coincided with the eve of Bastille Day, 14 July.  Expecting fireworks, we booked an outside table overlooking Lac Leman at the town’s Michelin-starred restaurant, Raphael Vionnet.  In the end, the only fireworks came in the form of food and wine – which were both crackers.  Here’s a sad story of my delinquency.

Greeted by the warmly hospitable David, we were shown to our terraced table with a gorgeous glimpse of the Lac and boats beyond the trees.  The lovely thing about outdoor eating in France? NO INSECTS.

A beautiful scene.

Commencing menu explanations in French, he quickly realised we could not keep up and switched to English.  Later I overheard him doing it again in Italian;  same with the young waiters and Sommelier-in-Training.  None of them looked over 25; all of them could converse happily and intelligently in multiple languages.  I suppose that is necessary to work in a Michelin-starred restaurant and I applaud it for the high standards of servitor it attracts.

Our first Amuse-Bouche was a cone of mozzarella with prawn paste, a square of “fera”-flavoured something on a biscuit base, (the Lac has two kinds of edible fish all year round, the perch and the fera), and a toastie thingo with stuff on top – by now who cared – all gorgeous.  I ordered a glass of Billecart-Salmon Brut Rosé (and thanked Peter and Angela Wilson for my introduction to it) as my pre-dinner drink and Keit a G & T. 

The astute observer will note I have deliberately dropped the “h” off my husband’s name.  It is not that my standard of spelling has dropped, it is simply that the French cannot say “Keith”; “Keit” is the closest they come.  Many more standards will be dropped on this heavenly evening, I promise.

By now we’d worked out we would have the five course “Menu Confiance” with matched wines.  “Confiance” means trust, and we felt in a place of this standard we could trust the chef to provide us his finest, not yesterday’s left-overs and the over-stocked wine from the cellar.  Less expensive options existed but we chose the OTT pick.

The next amuse bouche was a soup course – a hot thick bisque flavoured with fera and served in a glass coffee cup.  You could either spoon it up (Gail) or slurp it from the bowl (Keit).  It was the best bisque we have ever eaten.  I washed it down with the rest of my champagne, legitimately called champagne, and was now mildly inebriated.  You who know me know that I apply a one glass limit but tonight I had bravely stepped into the world of matching wines.  Aw heck, they’d promised 8 cl servings (80 ml) which is smaller than a standard drink.  And it was Bastille Day! 

Soup was followed by the first course.  A forbidden dish arrived!  Of course it did – this is France!  Accompanied by a pimento-flavoured sorbet in the shape of a pimento (!), we were served the smoothest foie gras, like velvet, like silk, moulded then sliced around a knob of fresh lobster.  Did I decline it on principle?  No, of course not.  I was trusting the chef and anyway they gave me a Sav Blanc called Gaia made in the Loire Valley in a beautiful glass.  The Sommelier-in-Training sloshed some extra into my verre.  He was very cute so I batted my eyelids and ascertained his name – Paul.

Fish course was the ubiquitous fera.   Michelin starred restaurants are supposed to take advantage of local produce and present it to its best advantage.  I was loving fera I can tell you.  I wash loving everything.  It wash served on a duxelles of noix, (bed of crushed nuts – I have never crushed nuts in bed), a petite amount of fera crème, some tiny, weeny, itsy-bitsy baby girolles (mushrooms) in a cute line across the plate and topped with truffe d’ete – truffle of summer – which in this case was bark-like, (trees not dogs), brown and grated on top.  The wine was a viognier made by Julien Pilon in the Rhone Valley.  Good on yer, Julie-Baby.  Yer tops, you know?   My BEST frenn Paul looked after me again.  Love ya, Paul.

Our meat course was not meat.  It was duck.  A large piece of duck was served, ordered so rare it could have flown away.  It was served with roasted shallots – the real ones not the puny petty green and white things we call spring onions in Australia – and gravy of carnard.  That means duck.  Thish next wine was one I knew.  As Paul was now bringing it to the table to be photographed before pouring, I saw from 20 yards away it was a Saint Emilion and I KNEW, because I know my wines, that wine.  “Saint Emilion is BORDEAUX!!!”  I happily carolled to the benefit of the restaurant.  My visit to La Cité du Vin had not been wasted.  It was a Chateau Mangot from 2012 but it tashted NOTHING like Mangoes.

The cheese came.  Who cares what-ish was?  It wash CHEESE.  It could have been Tomme, Beaufort or Comté.  The really cute waiter called Nicolas said, “Madame is correct.  This cheese is Tomme, embedded with black peppers and a William pear compote”.  At this point Paul elbowed him aside, or did I elbow Nicholas aside?, to pour a Trousseau (that’s a grape I never heard of – where was Cité du Vin in need?), Grande Domain made in 2017 in the Jura.  “Oh”, I cried, “in Switzerland”, showing off I am exceptionally good at geography.  “No, Madame, the French Jura” replied Paul stiffly.  Who woulda thought gorgeous young Sommeliers-to-be could be SO sensitive?  He only poured me HALF a glass this time.  Petulant Paul.

A long wait now ensued before dessert.  Did they think I was drunk or summfing?  This afforded the opportunity to enjoy the fabulous last vestiges of a flaming sunset and canvas the other guests, silently abusing the Italians for smoking in an outdoor restaurant – bloody Italians!  I stood up to go and remonstrate with them, knowing I could carry this off in my best Italian, but Keit pulled me back into my chair.  We debated driving down to Evian to see their fireworks, but if you think Paul had been generous with ME, well you shoulda seen my squiffy husband whose name I could no longer say either.  Keit was gently, sunnily, beaming with bonhomie, didn’t want me to take on the Mafia, and didn’t have the car keys.  He reminded me we had walked to dinner.  Oh.  Yeah.

Very nearly the same scene as before just more beautiful.

Surprishe!  Next came a “pre-desshert” desshert.  It was a tiny little cup of fennel and chopped frais.  As a combination they are divine.  They generated a long discussion between us.  Keit said they were strawberries.  I said they were raspberries.  Keit said they were strawberries.  I said they were raspberries.  Keit said they were strawberries.  I said they were raspberries. This intelligent discourse went a little longer, until I, as only a wife can, told him that he was (an idiot and was) thinking of “frambois”, not “frais”, (you see the confusion right there), and painstakingly set out to assemble on my plate enough portions of the chopped frais to convince him he was looking at a raspberry.  This took a while.  I ecstatically chased minute portions of frais around my plate to assemble a whole.  It was thoroughly absorbing and mentally engrossing.  The waiters all stayed far away from our table during this process.

The evening was winding to a close.  It was around 11.00 p.m. and still a beautiful warm evening, when dessert was presented.  It was layers of fine meringue interwoven with layers of framboise.  Keit had learned his lesson and pronounced “strawberries”.  A triumph!  I was very proud of him.  Expecting a Monbazillac from the Dordogne, a dessert wine famed throughout the world, I was denied the opportunity to show off again when a white muscat made by Domain Lafage – Grain de Vigne – was poured at the table by a surly Paul who muttered it was made “South of the Rhone Valley, Madame” and avoided my other 17 questions.  He has a LONG way to go that boy.

Now stuffed, inebriated and ready to ride home by molecular transportation, the offer of “mignardise” tempted me to remain.  These were tiny chocolates served with coffee for Keit and tea for Gail.   Back to fireworks, the bill was a rocket, a sparkler and a whopping eye-opener, especially when mentally converted into AUD the next morning,  except my eyes couldn’t stay open, so who cares about fireworks?

This was a really great Bastille Eve so I wore my red, white and blues to celebrate. See? Shoes matching dessert.

Did I tell you that our apartment has a glorious view over the Lac?  That it is built on the top of a steep hill giving it this elevated vantage point?  That from our Lac-side location we had to get up this hill on foot to go home?  I am SO glad we did not drive.  We now had to attempt to climb some Alp, worthy of anything we tackled on the Camino, in our over-fed, over-drunk condition.  Holding onto each other, pausing whenever our hearts raced fast enough to kill us, counting ten steps at a time, we clambered, staggered and climbed our way home in the dark and fell into our mutual comas.

This morning, we rated Chateau de la Treynne a better meal, this one in Thonon second over everywhere in Australia we’ve fine-dined, vowed never to do matching wines again, and recorded this blog for you to enjoy.  Vive la Bastille! Vive la Vie…

Chapter 22: Charlie and The Chocolate Factory

Thanks to Roald Dahl, a more fitting title cannot be imagined for the day we went to visit Chaplin’s World in Vevey, Switzerland, then continued up the motorway to Nestle’s Maison Cailler to study Swiss chocolate manufacturing and see what all the fuss was about.   Although Charlie and the Chocolate Factory were two very different museums, each represented the pinnacle of their art-form.  We came home full of respect and chocolate.

Part I:  Hats off to The Tramp.  Born in 1889 in London’s East End, Charles Spencer Chaplin’s parents were an alcoholic father who deserted the family by the time Charles was two, and who died from cirrhosis of the liver at 38, and a mother who could not support her two sons (Sydney Chaplin was Charles’ older by four years half-brother who stood by Charles all his life), and left them twice in workhouses before Charles was nine, while eventually committing herself to an insane asylum (syphilis) where she spent the rest of her life in care.

Hating workhouse schools, at nine Charles joined a troupe of clog-dancers then ended up in vaudeville, encouraged by Sydney, where he learned the kit bag of all vaudevillians – juggling, tight-rope walking, dancing, magic, singing, pantomime and mime.  His obvious physicality and later precision of movement came from these years. 

Not satisfied with dancing, he wanted to work up a comedy act.  A perfectionist in all he did, his work on his craft got him noticed by the prestigious Fred Karno Company in 1908, then on a Karno tour (with Stan Laurel in the same troupe) of America, by Mack Sennett in 1914, and his life at Keystone Studios began. By 1918 he was a global superstar earning $15.4 million (in today’s dollars) for a one year contract, making him one of the most highly paid people in the world.  With this money he built his own movie studios and in 1919 formed United Artists with Douglas Fairbanks Jr, Mary Pickford, and DW Griffith, to control his own productions.

All of this can be found in Wikipedia or books on Charlie Chaplin, on how he rose from the worst poverty to become an international icon who mixed globally with royalty, celebrity, wealth and intellect.  His life has been described as “the most dramatic rags to riches story ever”, by his authorised biographer, David Robinson.

What Wiki cannot describe is the feeling you get about the man as you travel through his home, Manoir de Ban and life at Chaplin’s World, in Corsier-sur-Vevey.  Here he lived with wife Oona O’Neill, debutante and daughter of playwright Eugene O’Neill who severed relations with Oona after her marriage to Chaplin at 18.  O’Neill did not approve of her wishing to become an actress and Charles was a thrice-divorced 54 year old East-Ender – any father’s nightmare!   They lived in Beverley Hills for ten years, then when Charles’ visa was cancelled for his Un-American sympathies in the McCarthy era, they moved to this home in Switzerland and raised their eight children in this happy and beautiful place.

The Manoir is large and beautifully decorated.  Only the Study, Sitting, Bedroom and Dining Rooms are available for viewing but the curators have more than made up for that by creating a series of world-class exhibits about Charlie’s life in those rooms.  Placed throughout are larger-than-life wax mannequins which at first sight are off-putting but eventually lend a spirit of mischief and comedy to the house, trademarks of The Little Tramp, giving one a sense of lightness about this happy home.

The Study relates the stories of all the scripts he wrote and movies he directed.  A workaholic, he never stopped.  It contains authentic originals, hand-written notes and jottings on his directorial scripts, although it is a fact that as an actor and director he never worked from a fully developed script – projects just “happened” as they went along, such was the art of his genius.

The Sitting Room overlooks the French Alps and Lake Geneva from the Manoir’s 36 acre parkland.  It exhibits his violin, which travelled everywhere with him in youth, music scores and myriad photographs of home and movie life.  All the while, the timeless score from Limelight plays in the background.

In the Bathroom is a pictorial and news clippings of the friendship he shared with Einstein.  (There’s that equation again!!  e = mc², – see Chapter 21: The Particle Article still haunting me).  In the stairwell is a mirrored diorama of all the famous people he mixed with, stretching infinitely up and down in countless reflection, while Sophia Loren greets you (A Countess from Hong Kong).  Charlie greets you in the Entrance Hall giving The Tramp’s famous little kick, while in the Dining Room Charles and Oona watch countless home movies with you.

It’s from these home movies you get a sense of the man.  Perfectionist, obsessive, commanding the centre of attention, he was always performing for the camera, even at the expense of the children and Oona.  When the camera rolled, Charlie was “on”, and you knew it had to be done his way by the way in which he directed his children and rehearsed these home movies and photos before they were shot.  I mean – home movies! But these clips were entirely choreographed.  You felt he never stopped working, never could really relax and always had to prove himself.

At the same time, you also had to admire his extraordinary physicality, from these and from the movies clips shown later in “The Studio”.  For any actor who has studied Movement, here is The Master, the best of them all.  Every movement is deft, economical and perfect.  Nothing is wasted.  Every gesture, kick, glance, and motion is specific, genuine and has purpose.  His work is better than a Movement Master Class. 

From the Manoir, one moves next to The Studio, to watch a 12 minute biography.  The surprise comes at the end, sorry for the spoiler, when you are invited to walk through the screen to back of house, descending through the set of Easy Street, and spending many happy hours wandering through other re-created sets, watching his movies, reading about his filmography, admiring his awards and studying the perfection of the character he created in The Tramp.

Here I felt another sense of, and complete admiration for, this man’s work.  Working without any script or dialogue, you laughed, felt and cried.  When he hands the rose to Virginia Cherrill in City Lights, you feel all the poignant loss, hope and waste of unrequited love. The final scene of The Circus when he crumples the star of Stardom and kicks it away as he more jauntily resumes his exit, speaks volumes about his attitude to the fickleness of Fame.  Finally, in The Kid, as he scales walls and leaps buildings, worthy of any Parkour competitor today, to rescue his adopted son from the orphanage, you know he is rescuing his child-self.  The famous scene of Chaplin and the four year old Jackie Coogan pouring tears as they are reunited provokes your own.  No one watches that scene without tears in their eyes; all the visitors around us, even the Germans, were crying.

To recover, one leaves The Studio and takes a stroll around the park, a promenade he enjoyed daily with Oona, even in later years when he could only go in a wheelchair.  Knighted by the Queen in 1975, he died in this house on Christmas Day 1977 (88 yo) as Sir Charles Chaplin, previously having at last been invited back to America in 1972 to accept an honorary Oscar for “the incalculable effect he has had in making motion pictures the art form of this century” and given the longest ovation ever by the Academy – a full 12 minutes.

Even in death he was controversial, with his grave robbed of its body and coffin and buried elsewhere for two months while a ransom was demanded of Oona.  The Swiss police recovered it, and he now lies in reinforced concrete in a private corner of Corsier-sur-Vevey cemetery, Oona by his side (dec. from cancer at 66 yo in 1991), overlooking the French Alps and Lake where I like to believe he found true happiness.

The depth of my understanding of this complex man was enhanced by this visit, and my admiration is now boundless.  Like all geniuses, I’ve come to believe they are difficult and obsessive people, and perhaps they have to be to make their point.  I think the world is blessed that Charles Chaplin made his, that Vevey so honours us with this wonderful museum, and that he left us a legacy of beautiful, timeless movies and music, some of them the best that can ever be seen in any era.  I think we can overlook the fact he didn’t like his children walking in the snow in front of his study, as it left tracks on the purity of his view – can’t we?

Part II:  A different kind of museum was founded by Nestlé at Maison Cailler, just up the road, so we drove up into some Swiss mountains, past steep green hills with pointy-roofed houses and cows ringing bells, to Broc, next to Gruyère.

Travel Luck got us onto a tour within two minutes of entering, or we would have had to wait an hour.  Through audio guides held to our ears, pictures, dioramas, sound and light worthy of Disney, one moves through the history of chocolate and ends up in the tasting room. 

The Aztecs first got hold of the cacao bean, then Cortez arrived from Spain and took it back to Europe, who put sugar with it and invented a hot drink that took polite society by storm, while being the drink of choice for lovers.  Marie Antoinette purportedly ordered hot chocolate as her last meal.  Once the Industrial Revolution got going, the middle class could afford chocolate and artisans began making it into a solid blocks or shapes.  In Victorian times, chocolate art flourished and the French took it over, as they do with all great food, and set the standard for its multiple uses. 

Maison Cailler was founded in 1819 in Switzerland, where the milk is the purest because it is from high country, grass-fed cows.  Monsieur Nestlé took over Maison Cailler in 1931 but retained the brand as the highest, best example of fine Swiss chocolate.

It’s all a load of bunkum of course, because there’s very little cacao in chocolate and hardly any milk other than milk powder.  It is of course made from sugar!  Even the vaunted dark chocolate is more than 25% sugar.  See these pictures to prove it.

But then, who cares?  The point of the tour is getting to the end to taste it!  Here one is taught the five steps of tasting chocolate – experts rate it just like wine.  It’s very educational.  One is invited to take a piece and walk it through the five steps with you, to taste at the end of the lesson. 

The first step was to look at its dull shine.  At this point I ate mine so had to start again with another.  The second step is to smell it.  Mine didn’t make it to my nostrils, finding my mouth first so I went back to Lesson 1 for another piece.  The third step is to break it and listen to the snap; dark snaps differently from milk.  To make sure I got that right, I went back for another as the dark had melted in my hand and would not snap.  Then the milk (preferred by 65% of the world – see I DID learn something), would not snap either so I went back to the start.

The fourth step was to place it on the tongue and savour it.  Mmmm.  I savoured it alright.  I lovingly and lavishingly lingered over it.  And needed another so I could languorously and longingly love it.  I melted it in my cheeks, rolled it under my tongue and   … oh, heck, it was gone … back to the start.  The final step is to taste the after-taste and detect the myriad post-eat-flavours.  I didn’t like this step at all;  I never look back, preferring to live in the present so I went back for another.

Now expert, one studies some machines and things that make chocolate go round and round, then extrudes it into pieces so that robots can wrap them in foil.  Ho-hum.  At the end of this exhibition, one is invited to taste ONE foil-wrapped praline thingo and exhorted not to take any more than one.  To me, that’s an invitation to rebel, which I did, secreting another two foil-wrapped thingos in my bag.

When all else is done – really great tour – one thinks it is complete.  No.  This is where chocolate saturation only just begins.  In the tasting room, slabs of layers of pieces of samples are laid in a line which you traverse, tasting every one of Maison Cailler’s products.  There are about 19 of them.  After the fifth, Femina, milk chocolate with nuts, which I think I decided was my favourite, the rest became a blur.  Keith who had finished ahead of me, (because I happen to read everything in museums), came back to warn me of chocolate overload.  It was too late!  I had expended my desires in the earlier tasting tests, and this was pure gluttony that I could not much longer endure.  I managed to make it to the end of the 19 products, but turned up my nose at dark chocolate and dark chocolate with marzipan.

Staggering into the café, I ordered a cup of hot tea to wash it all away, while Keith had a most disappointing cup of luke-warm chocolate.  Somewhat fortified, we examined the gift shop but found the thought of eating any more chocolate induced a gag reflex.  We departed empty handed, knowing we had eaten more chocolate than at any other time in our adult lives, and feeling sick from the generous sampling at Maison Cailler.

We drove to Gruyère but could not face the thought of tasting cheese after so much chocolate, instead taking pictures of the Chateau and winding through the back hills – beautiful, ordered, clean, delightful Switzerland – to Vevey, Montreux and home.

On a day spent with Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, we felt like we had won the golden ticket.  This day was a feast for all our senses; we ended it feeling like Oompa Loompas.

PS:  Thinking I had done with chocolate for all time, later that night over our cuppa, Keith wistfully lamented not buying any that day as he now felt like a piece.  I remembered my thieving and triumphantly produced two melted, misshapen morsels of pure joy.  In postscript I add that this Swiss chocolate IS better than Belgian chocolate; there’s that argument settled imho, (and despite the gorging, I will never stop loving either).

Chapter 21: The Particle Article

Keith was so excited to get onto a tour at CERN (Centre Européenne pour la Recherche Nucléaire), in Geneva.  It was another Travel-Luck thing as these tours are usually booked months in advance.  Not even realising that CERN could split the atom, my learning curve was stupendous and thoroughly boring.  Read on if interested.

Let me give you a quick lesson on particle physics.  Coming from me, who thinks Newton is a tennis player and Galileo is a line from Boh Rhap, this will demonstrate how well CERN explains everything via a series of exhibitions, a guided tour with a nuclear physicist, three movies, (one in 3D) and visits to a Detector Control Room (ATLAS) and a cyclotron.  What a feast!  Speaking of which …

… Imagine you are a contestant on Master Chef and you’ve been ordered to make a banquet featuring every dish ever made by all cooks in all countries in all times.  That’s every roast meal, dim sum, taco, burek, pig’s trotter, camel stomach, cake, BBQ, foie gras, apple pie and hamburger ever created, and you’ve got just two things in the cupboard – let’s call them fish and chips.

Fish and chips together make a meal (an atom), but, let’s face it, fish are so much more interesting than chips, and you can do so much more with them, so you split them into two using electricity, (I think nuclear bombs are made this way too), and discard the chips (electrons).  This leaves you with a bucket of protons, I mean fish.

You pour these along with a great deal of hydrogen gas, so they can swim in it, into an airless horizontal tube laid flat in a huge 27 kilometre circle buried 100 metres underground, and you encourage half the fish to swim in one direction and the other half in the other direction.  Guided by magnets, they swim faster and faster, whizzing round and round the circle but never hitting each other until they are travelling at immense speeds.

When they are zooming along at 99.999999% of light speed, (which means they go around the 27 kilometre tunnel at 11,245 times per second) you direct two opposing fish into a head-on collision.  The impact of those fish hitting each other at such a high speed explodes them into gazillions of tiny particles, from which any other food in your banquet can be made.  In other words, you’ve reduced your fish into their particle matter, and we all know that everything in the world is made from particle matter.  Now go ahead and observe the particles and design your menus.  Note you cannot make anything with them, just observe them and plan menus, because the study of particle matter is pure theory.  I hope you win Master Chef; I certainly won’t win a Nobel Prize.

The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) is the tube described above, and it’s the biggest machine in the world, built in 2008 after two smaller colliders (cycloctrons) were not adequate to really explode the fish.  Think of a giant hollow hula-hoop made from 1200 pieces of tube about one metre in diameter, each placed at 0.333. degrees to the next to form a circle 27 kilometres around. It operates nine months a year whizzing protons at one another until they are manoeuvred to explode in front of one of the four Detector stations positioned roughly equi-distantly around the LHC. 

These explosions simulate the birth of the Universe at exactly a moment one trillionth of a second after the Bang went Big, 13.6 billion years ago.  This allows scientists to study particles, how they explode, which direction they explode in, how many particles are thus created, how the Universe was formed, what it’s still doing, what is likely to happen to it, and from this study they publish papers, win Nobel Prizes and spend a lifetime being able to relate to only about 3,000 other people on the planet, the number who work alongside them at the LHC in Geneva.

But I think it did good things for nuclear medicine, which I also don’t understand, and they invented MRIs at one time, so it must be good for all mankind that these geniuses spend their lives studying particles.  I mean, what else is there to do?  Cure cancer?  Solve world poverty? In fact, they did one good thing at CERN – the World Wide Web was invented here.

The statistics at this place are phenomenal.  Once a proton explodes, the computers have to process 10,000 gigabytes per second of data and need special software to do that.    The massive amounts of data captured at exploding time are too big for any one computer to handle so a grid of 170 computers across 35 countries shares the load.  This is the biggest computer grid in the world and so far it has analysed 6 quadrillion proton-proton explosions.  It produces 25 petabytes of data a year, that’s 25,000 terrabytes or 25 x 10 to power 15 zeros.  (To help: Avatar used 1 petabyte of data for CGI effects; Google processes about 24 petabytes a day).

The magnetic arrays (hundreds of them) that keep the protons on course weigh 100 tons each.  The control room equipment could place Man on Pluto, (not the cartoon dog), and the particles are measured infinitely.  They cannot be counted in fact, and previously no one could work out what gave them substance (matter).  They should have been dead, lifeless and unmoving, because part of an atom had just been busted apart, like two fish would be that exploded at light speed, but they still contained energy, and e=mc2 tells us that where there is energy there is also mass – but how/what?

The “standard model” of particles theoretically places them in one of four columns, each layered into three, so there were 12 types of particles sorted by density.  (Are you feeling dense yet?)  Okay – each of the fish particles still has some calories (energy). There’s even a calorimeter measuring that. But which one gave them mass?  Meet Peter Higgs, one of a team from 1963 who theorised that particles could be excited by bosons, (which are even smaller than quarks but I’ve already done the Foie Gras Blog). 

Finally, at CERN using the LHC in 2012 they confirmed that a boson – the Higgs’ boson – gave physical energy (mass) to all the other particles.  This was incredible.  It was really exciting.  He got a Nobel Prize for Physics for that and is up there with Newton, Galileo and Einstein.  I’m sure you’ve read about him – it was in Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons. If not, you may have heard about the “God particle” but he scorned that name as too sensationalist.

This has to be the most exhausting tour I have ever done – not for the distances which were about 750m – but for the mental gymnastics, stretches, races to keep up and twists that trying to grasp all this does to one’s brain.  There is no gift shop or cafeteria, just acres and acres of large sheds, computer rooms, large scale models and geeky scientists collaborating to study particles.  I guess someone has to do it – it furthers mankind’s knowledge and intelligence and all that.  Me?  I am just happy menu-planning and eating fish and chips.

Chapter 20: Cool, Cooler, Coolest

Aching for a respite from the heat, and finding little air conditioning in France, we decided to spend a day in the French Alps.  What we only realised over a delicious plate of charcuterie and chilled rose was that in experiencing cool, cooler and coolest we had been in three countries in less than 24 hours.  Europe is like that.

Part I: On Saturday 29 June our old friend Elton John invited us to swing by for a natter and to catch one of the 108 concerts he has performed in nine months on the Farewell Yellow Brick Road tour.  This two year long extravaganza, five years in the planning, truly is the last time Elton and the Band will go on the road.  While I suspect, being the performer he is, he may do one-offs here and there, or solo gigs sometimes, the band all wants to retire after up to 49 years together (Nigel Olsson on drums), and Elton wants to spend more time with his children, as he publicly professes.

He is not stopping work however, with a book about to be published, Year 2 of the FYBR Tour to complete (41 concerts in Australia and New Zealand coming), music just finished recording for The Devil Wears Prada, and the global launches of the new Disney version of The Lion King to attend.  There’s fund-raising for the Elton John AIDS Foundation, commitments at Watford FC, raising a family, supporting a vast infrastructure and being available to friends like us.  This man is a busy workaholic and extremely happy to be “at the best time of my life right now”.

We met in his dressing room in the only room of the Stade Saussaz in Montreux that had any air conditioning.  I was almost as delighted to get into the air con as I was to see our dear mate.  We received an effusive greeting, swapped stories, chatted on screen with his boys in Windsor, and also caught up with David in New York.  Elton is always incredibly interested in our stories, shares our love of France, and forgets no details of our lives.  I cannot believe how good he is at remembering everything; he even congratulated me on becoming the finance head of world parachuting!  How would he know that?  He is the COOLEST man. I guess Keith bragged about it.

As usual, the conversation and quips were lightning fast and very funny as he sought our opinions on politics, fallen movie stars, fund-raising event winners and life in France.  We were together about an hour during which the photographer and dresser got sent away until EJ was ready to dress around 7.30.  We escaped, and he dressed, then did a Meet and Greet with Quincy Jones, Shania Twain and others, while we found our seats.

The concert he gives is SO generous.  Over 2.5 hours of oldies and newies, all sung in his rich baritone, (if you expect him to go “la-la-la-la-la” in falsetto to Crocodile Rock, forget it), and played with extraordinary musicianship and talent on a piano that makes sounds a piano was never supposed to make.  The band comprises five musicians, each a giant in his field, and they are given full credit for their work and a chance to strut their stuff.  Ray Cooper is a one-man show all by himself on percussion.  The visuals are fantastic, and produce a melange of past Elton John footage and shots which I found poignant, as was the finale.

As usual, I enjoy an Elton John concert enormously and am full of admiration for the talent of this performer, his compositions, his presence, his costumes (!), and his playing.  He is at the height of his vocal powers, not fading away and unable to hold a key like many ageing rock stars over 70.  At the same time, the man on the stage is not the Elton I know, a track-suit wearing, (although you should SEE the tracksuits), no glasses, no makeup, funny, warm, super-intelligent, generous and passionate man who clearly adores the man I adore too – Keith Francis.  We have that, and so much more, in common, at a personal and human level.

Getting out of Montreux at the end of the night was the easiest we have ever gotten out of an EJ concert.  From VIP Parking onto the AutoRoute in less than 30 seconds, we whizzed back to Thonon in about 30 minutes.  I love the way the Swiss organise things.

Part II:  To stay cool I sleep under a damp towel.  It’s a good trick and it works when your apartment doesn’t have air con, although overnight the Lac keeps us around 20-22C.

On waking I announced to Keith I “needed to see snow”, so after our usual breakfast of fresh fruit salad, finely cut up by the Master of the House, baguette and cheese, and cups of tea, we pointed the new Renault Duster (our second leased car in France; we loved the Duster so much the first time (Jan – May), that we leased another one for the next six months), at Chamonix-Mont Blanc.

Mont-Blanc is the highest mountain in Europe at 4,810 metres asl (15,780 feet).  That is over half the height of Mt Everest, not quite as tall as Mt Kilimanjaro, and ranks number 11 in the world.  I felt sure I would see snow there, even after the record hottest heat wave, in timing, extreme and duration, that France has ever experienced.  My instincts were correct.

On approach, it started to get exciting when we saw the first whispers of white stuff lacing the mountains ahead.  Suddenly, we were climbing through a valley and the mountains in all their majesty were crowding upon us.  With pine, fir and beech trees lining their slopes until they became too steep to support trees, the mountains reared up to snowy peaks and I mean reared.  At one point I could feel them over the top of me and it was exhilarating; they are so steep, so sheer, so straight up.  Our excitement at being among these monsters was palpable.  We exclaimed and pointed like kids at rock fall barriers, rock fall nets and rock fall remnants.  These sights are very rare in Australia where our aged, rounded mountains don’t shed any more, nor provide cliffs and slopes as vertical as these French Alps. 

Our photographs do not do justice to the sight of their youthful (in mountain years), vibrant, grandeur but maybe I’ve conveyed some of our joy in words.

Chamonix at its foot is the archetypal ski-resort-in-summer.  Keith last visited Chamonix in 1962.  Relatively recently, I visited Chamonix in 1987 when I spent a week skiing here, but the town today bore no resemblance to the snow-covered, mulled wine serving, snow-off-boots-stomping village I recalled.  It has grown larger and taller as more of the world comes to ski here, in a world where ski slopes are diminishing due to global warming.  However, it manages to retain that Swiss-chalet feel in every building that developers have built, while every ledge displays flower boxes in a profusion of colours and scents that render the town absolutely charming.  This, combined with the pale green-milk, glacial stream that rushes through its centre, the aged and respectful church, the absence of vehicle traffic, the variety of plazas in a medieval scattering and the dozens of para-gliders descending from vast heights like giant butterflies, creates an enchanting effect.  As Keith commented, “this looks like Main Street in Disneyland”, and he was correct.  Chamonix is charming, enchanting and beautiful.  It transported us into a delightful day.

We found a restaurant with air con, but sat outside in the street anyway with the cool air wafting through the open windows behind.  It was only about 28C.  Lunch became tapas, beer for Keith and Sex on the Beach for me.  Don’t worry, Mum; it’s just the name of the coolest cocktail on the menu.  Anyway, it’s too hot in France for sex.

We wandered and walked and marvelled at the sights, then decided to do what I had done years ago – drive into Italy for coffee.  As one does.  The 11 kilometre long Mont Blanc tunnel departs from Chamonix, travels under Mont Blanc, and emerges in Italy.

It is a testament to the poor coffee we’ve had to endure in France, that we would pay €56,90 (plus tolls each way getting there = AU$100+) for a return drive through the tunnel for a cup of coffee, but that’s what we did.  And also because it and we were there, and you only live once, and it promised to be cooler over there, and all that stuff.  It was a very easy decision.

Tunnel driving is not for everyone, but we love it.  This tunnel is in a dead-straight line with regular phones, escape routes and fire extinguishers, while one is exhorted to keep “two blue lights distance” from the car in front.  They cannot afford accidents as it is single lane each way, and a crash could really hold up the commerce between two nations.

Emerging into Italy, we found a restaurant at St Didier and settled in for the afternoon.  Now my head spun.  Asking questions about and ordering from the menu in French as we’ve become used to, suddenly didn’t work!  A very rapid head-switch found us digging deep for our long-forgotten Italian (which, in my case, has turned into Spanish from being recently so long in Spain), but these waiters were so good they offered to speak in our “most comfortable” language.  We chose French!

Our view was of the same mountain range with the tip of “Monte Bianco” just showing, only with far less snow as the range now faced south.  There were three glaciers to study, multiple mountain tops to admire, people to watch, wine and beer to drink, the BEST-EVER plate of charcuterie to devour along with thick brown Italian bread, adventurous types catching the gondola to go up and climb, hike, trek and traverse, and a potential avalanche waiting to tumble.  We hoped and prayed it would crash while we were there, but it didn’t.  I am sure those adventurous types were happy about that.

It was while sitting here that we realised that we were yesterday in Switzerland, today in France and right now in Italy.  It’s worth a giggle and something everyone would enjoy doing, I am sure.  The challenge of language, the study of different cultures and seeing the huge built and natural diversity in this world is endlessly fascinating.  It’s why we love each other’s Facebook travelogues so much.

It also gives one again that incredibly powerful reflection that country borders are artificial, man-made, political constructs based on ancient struggles for power and wealth that are meaningless in a world where we are connected by, and sadly polarised by, social media, instant news, fake news, and lightning speed communications.  All people we’ve enjoyed time with in the last 24 hours carry the common aspirations of people globally:  To be secure, to have purpose, to grow, to be accepted and to love.  Imagine there’s no country?  Imagine that.

Finally, we headed for home, back through the tunnel where the Italians were far more controlling than the French free-for-all, and allowed cars through only once every ten seconds.  There’s that cultural difference right there.   It was now 26 in Chamonix but still 36 in Thonon with only 100 kilometres between them.  My day in the hills had come to an end, I know.  My heart was blessed by the sound of (Elton John’s) music last night, by the beauty, majesty and grandeur of the Alps, by the enchanting Chamonix, by the fabulous food, and by Sex on the Beach.  When I got home, I took a cold shower.