Monday, September 27, 2010

Seriously sweet Siberian...

Our Siberian kitten has finally arrived! I went to collect him this weekend and he seems to have occupied most his time since then appropriating the house and contents - which amongst other things has entailed rearranging soil from plant plots, ravaging leaves and flowers, racing up and down the leather sofa - leaving fine scratch marks in his wake, depositing fiendish-smelling 'accidents' in obscure places, dislodging any spiders and cobwebs from under furniture, trying to catch the cursor on the computer screen and fishing for my feet under the bedclothes (he caught them!). However, above all else he has been seriously sweet - and now it's the childrens' turn to get to know Noggin the Nog - their new partner in crime!

Noggin (foreground) with a half-sister
Well, as I write Noggin has made his way up my back - baby claws out and is now rummaging around in the fireplace eating something...Just when you're exhausted cats seem to get a burst of inexplicable energy so this promises to be an eventful night!

The mother

Monday, September 20, 2010

Here comes the sun!...

Well, actually the sun might not be on it's way, but in order to face another week, hopefully not like the last one - here's something to put a bit of warmth, brightness and appetite into this evening which is starting to feel decidedly autumnal. What better way than with some photos of Provençal markets! Everything felt light-filled, colourful, perfumed and humming with people and wasps when I took the photos, and seems all the more so now as the seasons change.

Open-air food markets seem to be an integral part of the French lifestyle, in a way that doesn't seem to find an equivalent in England, or perhaps just in the lifestyle I had in the U.K! In France such markets can be found in every village, town, city - with many larger towns (Reims being one of them) having a market in different quartiers each day of the week - each market having its own character and 'flavour' adapted to the demands and tastes of the clientele. There are, of course, usually covered permanent market halls to be found too, with buildings generally situated in the town centre.
 Wherever the site, wandering around the market is a pleasure that seems to be instinctive. However, the markets in the South of France have the added benefit of the sun and luminosity (in winter, when the temperature isn't always that warm!) that also leads to more exotic food stands.  

 Ironically, just after coming back from the south, a Provençal market was set up here for the weekend - so
some of the warmth made its way up here to the north-east.
While going to the markets is a fantastic experience of the senses, it goes without saying that it does serve a concrete purpose. From the moment the stands are installed early in the morning, professional caterers and restauranteurs do their rounds to get the best produce.
Local producers, paysans, supply fresh products, seasonally or throughout the year. In the winter, when  temperatures fall wherever the market, the stall holders still handle and serve their goods with weathered hands, regardless of the cold, even when chopping up resistant pumpkins.
As the French countryside tries to withstand the industrialisation of the landscape fortunately the markets
still serve as an outlet to producers who would perhaps find it difficult to make a livelihood, faced with the competition from the large supermarkets which try to cash in on this desire for produce of  les terroirs.

Nothing can really take the place of fresh produce that isn't shrouded in plastic, shrink wrapped or
doused in preservatives.
There's also the added bonus of being able to taste the goods before buying - rows of jam and honey, syrup, biscuits, wild-boar ham, olive oil and much more besides....My children had a field day!

Friday, September 10, 2010

Sculpted lions...

Auguste Caïn;  Hotel de ville, Paris

Over the summer I tried looking out for different forms of sculpted lion and the variation in artistic interpretation and media was fantastic!

 Caïn; Jardin des Tuileries

I have seen lions represented on door knockers, capitals of columns, facades, fountains and of course numerous sculptures.

Some have demonstrated their majestic force or have been ferocious in their feral nature...

Others just plain frightening...

These are ones that nightmares are made of....
Facade, Reims

Others regal and dignified, ever watchful...

La Rotonde;  Aix-en -Provence

Certain ones comic - looking heavy-browed and perplexed...


Some appeared rather sheepish...

Others appeared astounded or angered...

Place Royale; Reims

Some seemed very subdued - symbols of power, tamed and docile!


Some seemed to have almost human features with Baroque flowing locks rather than a lionesque mane...

And finally more again seemed barely recognizable as lions!

Needless to say, the lion has always fascinated man - throughout the ages the king of the beasts has been a creature of legend, symbolizing royalty, stateliness and noble bravery.

Associated with the notion of protection and linked to the image of loyal guardian the lion appears in many forms. As a sphinx, half-human, half-lioness it looks over the pharaohs, while as Bastet, the ever-watchful goddess of the rising sun it guards the dead. Much later in Medieval times the lion continued this vital role as it protected the entombed knights by lying at their feet (incidentally, dogs symbolizing loyalty slept at the feet of the knights' wives, and unicorns at the feet of virgins!).

Fontaine du Palmier; Place du Châtelet, Paris

The lion was indeed believed to sleep with its eyes open, and so could therefore keep guard over those who had entered the realm of eternal sleep. In addition to this, it was said to be doted with the power of ressurection since it allegedly re-animated lifeless lion cubs.

In mythology and the Bible the lion was used to reflect the superiority of deity. When man was bestowed with the divine power he could overcome the king of all the animals, as was the case of Hercules, whose strength was shown through the slaying of the Nemean lion.

The lion was one of the four sacred winged animals of the Bible and is specifically associated with the Evangelist Mark, reflecting energy and undaunted courage. Indeed, the Greek lions of the Arsenal in Venice symbolize St Mark, the patron saint of la  Serenissima. In Christianity the lion would frequently be used to portray Jesus, assuming a Messianic figure.

In the Middle Ages the lion was a principal element of heraldry, depicted in many significant positions including; rampant (raised up on back legs, ready to attack); passant (with forepaw raised); sejant (sitting on haunches); couchant (lying down, yet awake).

Despite the great symbolism of the lion, few Europeans had actually seen the real creature and for many people this was simply a legendary beast, much like the dragon or gryffin.

The realism of the lion's portrayal suffered somewhat as artists tried to improvise - using artistic licence - namely their imagination! These must be my favourite lion representations... Nevertheless, over time lions would be seen in Medieval bestiaries and royal menageries.

When the greatest sculpteur animalier of 19th century France, Antoine-Louis Bayre (1795-1875) created his greatest pieces he had already studied big cats in the zoo at the Jardin des Plantes, alongside the Romantic painter Eugène Delacroix.
Henri -Alfred Jacquemart. Jardin des Plantes; Paris

Antoine-Louis Bayre

The realism of Bayre's work was such that when Le Lion au Serpent, commissiond by King Louis Philippe, appeared in the Jardin des Tuileries it was met with much indignation since it was felt that the gardens were "being taken for a menagerie".

Maybe you can have just too much realism. While the animal essence and force is present in the work of the great animaliers, the artist himself is waylaid and seems to disappear behind his work. I would love to see the craftmen who created the naïve beauty of the lion on this cathedral door.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Clearing out and clearing off!

It has to be said that it is very therapeutic to get rid of a lot of old junk -especially when it's part of the flotsam and jetsam of a former life that itself has been discarded for one reason or another (usually a shipwreck).

Clearing out at the municipal dump.

Any self-respecting magpie would baulk at hoarding, let alone thieving, such volumes of unwanted objects and the faded, jaded memories attached. So it was a great endeavour to clear the (double) garage of this weight of material and wow, did I feel good afterwards!!! This of course entailed numerous donations to friends likely to accept such 'rainy-day use' junk and then many trips to the municipal dump. Not having a car, I used an old pushchair and just loaded it up, repeatedly, looking like something from Steptoe and Son, but quite enjoying the experience, especially in the early morning sunlight.
Once my mission was accomplished I had the luck to be invited to visit friends in Provence and so I gladly accepted, wanting to clear off after all of this symbolic clearing out. And so it was that I managed to get the tail end of the summer in Aix-en-Provence, Ville d'Eaux, Ville d'Art, with friends and I certainly wasn't disappointed with my trip. While the mornings here in the North-East of France are starting to get a little darker and markedly colder, down in the South, they are still hazy with the heat....

 Hazy morning light in Aix-en-Provence

Later in the day, the light streams through the leaves, branches and boughs of the plane trees that line the major streets, whilst the water trickles and gushes from the numerous fountains. The pigeons aren't the only ones happy to splash in the water....

Just in front of the old post office

Fountain Cours Mirabeau

This is one of the fountains on Cours Mirabeau - the most famous street in Aix, where the best cafés can be found. Amongst these is Les Deux Garçons which has had a most prestigious clientèle over the years since 1792 - Emile Zola, Paul Cézanne, Albert Camus, Marcel Pagnol, Pablo Picasso and Ernest Hemingway.

Former capital of Provence, Aix derives its name from the latin Aquae, alluding to the Roman springs upon which the town was built up. It was founded in 122 BC as a garrison of Gaius Sextius and soon became the town Aquae Sextiae (Waters of Sextius), based on a Gallo-Roman plan, in order to aid commercial traffc between Rome and Massalia (Marseille). In the Medieval period the town flourished and merchants and dignitaries made of Aix the 'Florence of Provence'. At this time the town was protected by fortifications and a wall which bore 39 towers and it is on the remains of this that the Cours Mirabeau was set in the 18th century.

Cours Mirabeau
At the end of the Cours Mirabeau is the large Rotonde Fountain, with its lions and water creatures, spouting water since its creation in 1860 - just visible in the background of the photo above... The fountain is situated  in front of the site of the old casino. The traffic circulating around the Rotonde is pretty impressive, so getting onto the central 'island' to take photos has a high adrenalin factor!

Roi Réné
 Meanwhile at the other end of the Cours the dignified statue of Roi Réné looks down on the passers-by, and marks the Golden Age of Aix when the town became a centre of culture and learning.

The town is 33km from Marseille, but has a very different feel to this city. There is a dignity and sophistication to Aix although in certain districts it has a small market atmosphere.... The warm colours of the building façades, set off by the bright blue sky beyond is very beautiful and this is only emphasized by the shutters.

Near Place de la Mairie
I love the play of dazzling light and shadow that runs across all the buildings.Aix boasts a climate that offers 300 sunny days a year! The summers often reach more than 40°. The winter temperatures are rarely below freezing, however the Mistral creates a significant wind-chill factor.

A row of elegant buildings - the windows of which sometimes have caged birds which sing away into the hot afternoon. As a backdrop to the town there is the mountain Sainte Victoire, painted by Paul Cézanne (1839-1906).

The tranquility of the area belies the fact that this region is in fact at the mercy of seismic activity, and from time to time slight temors can be felt. No major incident has occurred for a long time - although the two nearby towns of Lambesc and Rognes were flattened by an earthquake in 1909.

Here are one of the old advertising signs that you can still see, and which add great charm to buildings now, although I suppose they were originally considered to be eye-sores! How tastes change!

Well, on that note, safe with the spirit of Provence, I shall go to bed!

 A particularly sleepy street view.... Bonne Nuit! 

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Our Siberian kitten - The Saga of Noggin the Nog....

Krasnogorsk Felix
 * This is now the 28th March 2012 so Oggie (his name was modified over the first few months of arrival) is now a BIG adult (neutered) Siberian! Yesterday a lot a people clicked on this particular post, but I just can't work out why! Please let me know, and put an end to much curiosity! As you should know, curiosity killed the cat - it's certainly getting me!!! Was it the Russian connection? A link to President Medvedev's and Gorbachev's feline friends? Or was it simply Bagpuss?  I saw his home town of Canterbury this weekend - he shared it with Rupert Bear, no less.... 
I'd love to know.... * Just found out why... Oggie himself doesn't have a Twitter account...

In a few weeks' time I'm going to Le Mans to collect the latest addition to our family so that the children and I finally make the long-awaited acquaintance of our Siberian kitten, of the pedigree name 'Krasnogorsk Felix'. For the moment we just have to content ourselves with the photo above and are naturally trying to imagine what this mischievious little creature will be like when he finally arrives!

In anticipation of the real thing!

Although the history of this Russian cat breed dates back over the centuries it is only relatively recently known to European and American cultures and was first mentioned in 1871. This breed is thought to be mix between domestic cats, brought to Siberia by Russian settlers, and wild cats of the Ural mountains and the central Siberian plateau. Having similarities with the Maine Coon and the Norwegian Forest cat, the Siberian is the national cat of Russia...

 Indeed, 'Dorofei' is the current Kremlin inhabitant, prized Siberian cat of President Medvedev, taking over the occupancy from Putin's black labrador. However, the presidential pet recently hit the headlines for entering into a cat fight with Mikhail Gorbachev's feline! Apparently Dorofei lost the fight, although you would never guess from the proud expression from the photo session...

As you can see the Siberian is a long-haired cat with a dense mane enabling the breed to withstand the severe conditions of the
Russian winter months; this gives the body a certain barrel shape. The breed is said to have a unique triple purr, enjoys water (like the Turkish Van), has a dog-like personality & loyalty and many other qualities that we are soon to discover for ourselves!

Listen to me and I will tell you the story of Noggin the Nog
As it was told in days of old....

In the lands of the North,
Where the Black Rocks stand guard against the cold seas, 
In the dark night that is very long,
The men of the Northlands sit by their great log fires and they tell a tale...

We have decided to shorten our cat's breeder name from Krasnogorsk to Noggin (the Nog). This is a little reference to the magical work of Oliver Postgate who, with Peter Firmin in the company Smallfilms, created many children's programmes -  the most famous being The Clangers, the Pogles and of course Bagpuss. Okay, so our cat is Russian and certainly not of Viking origin, but nevermind!
I was too young to have seen Noggin the Nog (1959-65), but I certainly didn't miss out on Pogles Wood (1966-1968)- with the adventures of Pippin and Tog - and I even had the 1971 annual.

1971 Pogles annual

 Compared to work using today's filming techniques these old children's programmes should feel really old-fashioned and clunky with their gentle stories and stop-frame animation, but I just find them fantastic. The lasting impression they give must explain the popularity of Bagpuss who is sadly the only Postgate character to have successfully entered the 21st century and to be recognized by young and old alike. The explanation for this must go far beyond the clever merchandising which even leads to Bagpuss hot-water bottles!
When I was little I couldn't even look at certain Pogles pictures before going to bed because of that edgy quality that affected children who could never even have imagined  today's full-on images.

With his pink and cream fur (an error during the dyeing process which failed to produce a more usual marmalade cat colouring) Bagpuss appeared in 1974. As an "old saggy cloth cat, baggy and loose at the seams" Bagpuss should not, in theory, appeal to image-conscious kids, but he does, as much as he always has.

So now we have to wait until the end of the month to meet Noggin - Keep you posted!