Thursday, 13 May 2010

Ascension Day 1993

Extract from "Never Look Back" (see sidebar)

With more steely blue clouds gathering to the south west, I got to Chirac just as the midday Angelus was chiming from the church tower. I didn't stop, for then I would have got chilled in the breeze, but carried straight on for Chabanais which I reached about an hour later, freshly drenched by yet another burst of heavy rain. I began to look for an hotel of some sort as I entered the town, but could find nothing on the north bank, so crossing the Vienne for the second time, I tried the southern half. Following the main road round to the right I was rewarded with the sight of the hotel "la Croix Blanche", which once more seemed appropriately named for a pilgrim. I was acutely aware that I was drenched, and I didn't feel able to walk into the bar and up to the reception desk in such a liquid condition, so I took the opportunity of shelter afforded by the arched tunnel leading through to the parking area at the rear of the building. Here I stood for some five minutes, freely dripping, and attempting to dry myself off with a soggy handkerchief which I had to keep wringing out. At last I was less fluid, and I hurried through the rain to the bar entrance. The room was fairly full, the owner serving cups of steaming coffee and hot chocolate to similarly steaming customers, and in a lull, as he turned his attention to me, I asked for a room for the night. Looking me up and down, and taking in my dampened appearance, he grinned and asked if I wanted the room "Maintenant?" I replied with a "S'il vous plait", and was shown up some steps and through into the foyer in order to register and be given my key. Looking back I noticed that there was a pool of water on the stone floor of the bar where I had been standing and that as I passed over the inner carpet I was leaving a definite trail.

Up in my room, a light and airy chamber looking out over the rear parking area and across towards the river, I stripped out of my soggy clothes, found my towel, and started to make myself more comfortable. Wringing out my trousers and socks I hung them over the sink to drip dry, and then turned my attention to my boots. They were sodden, and having mopped out as much water as I could, I stuffed them with paper and stood them at an angle against the hot water pipes. I then found that my wallet had also got damp, and that several franc notes were in a very fragile state. These I pressed in my towel and laid them out to dry on the table. There was but one item soaked beyond recovery, and that was a postcard I had written the evening before and not had the opportunity to post. Not only had my writing smudged into an unreadable blue mess, but the card itself was disintegrating. It was a ball of multi coloured damp pulp that I dropped into the waste paper bin.

Down in the bar by a quarter to two, I decided that it was really too late to expect the restaurant to cope with another diner, although five minutes later, as I was sitting at a table sipping a shandy, a middle aged couple did come in and ask if they could be served, and were shown through to the dining room. Still, I was happy with a drink, and after a hot coffee I returned to my room to check on my clothes. Noticing that it had now stopped raining, I thought that I would take the opportunity to have a look around the town, for as I had crossed the bridge I had passed several market stalls, although at that time I hadn't been too concerned with taking in the sights. However, if it was market day, it could be a way of passing the afternoon, and so leaving my damp jacket hanging up, and trusting that I would be able to shelter from any further showers, I left the hotel with my single dry jersey as protection.

As I wandered around the stalls I wondered why the market seemed more like a Fair with most, if not all, of the shops closed, including the Post Office which, according to the schedule on its wall, should have been open. It wasn't until I strolled back across the bridge that I saw a banner which explained everything. In my travelling I had completely forgotten that it was Ascension Day, still a major holiday in France, and that this was the town’s Ascension Fair. So much for my liturgical knowledge. It reminded me of the time I had forgotten that it was Pentecost Sunday until I sat down to watch "Songs of Praise" in the evening, and wondered why all the hymns seemed to be about the Holy Spirit. Perhaps I should say that this incident took place before I was ordained into the church's ministry!

I felt that I ought to light a candle as my contribution to, and in celebration of, the Feast, so I searched around until I located an open church down a side street. Pushing open its ancient wooden door I entered into its gloom. The small interior was lit solely by a few flickering candles and it took me a moment or two to find the light switches. There wasn't much to see once the place was bathed in an electric glow, and so I lit my own contribution to the votive stand, muttered a prayer, turned off the lights and left.

The Fair was clustered around the southern end of the bridge over the Vienne, and purchasing a hot waffle smothered in Nutella chocolate spread, I munched on this as I wandered round. It was more than a Fair, for there were several stands displaying cars, modern furniture and watercolour paintings, along with the more usual confectionary wagons and speeding roundabouts. An exotic flavour was added by a string of four camels giving the more brazen of the local populace a ten minute ride up and down their high street. Music was provided by a brass band sitting in the shelter of the entrance to the open exhibition hall and a small folk group of some indeterminate origin, possibly Andalusian, both competing with the records being played over the town's loudspeaker system. It all added up to a glorious cacophony of sound and an assault on the nostrils, much of the latter provided by the camels!

By four o'clock "the world and his wife" were out on the streets, so I bought myself a cream bun from the only open Pâtisserie and retired to my room to devour it. As for finding accommodation, I needn't have worried. On my stroll around town I found two other hotels, both open and with vacancies, one of them back over the river and which I must have passed without seeing on my way through.

Having taken a second quick turn around the streets, and with the weather still threatening showers, I snoozed on my bed until just after seven, and then went down to the bar for a pre dinner apéritif. With a Martini Rosso on the rocks safely disposed of, I moved through to the restaurant. Not fancying any of the set menus I threw both caution and finances to the wind and decided to dine "à la carte". An entrée of deep fried Camembert wedges served with green salad was followed by an entrecôte steak in a green pepper sauce, and the meal rounded off with a crème caramel, black coffee, and a Cointreau.

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