Friday, January 16, 2009

My Cut-Rate Grand Tour: Day Six

Sunday, 11 December, 1988
La Côte St. André

HÔTEL FRANCE-- Hector’s birthday dawned cloudy and gray, which has become typical . . . The sun peeked out only once: oddly, when I was reading in the Mémoires about what a sunny spring day it was when he had his first Communion.

That was after church, when I was waiting for the hotel dining room to open for Sunday dinner.

The salle à manger was filled with jolly family parties this afternoon. Interestingly, at a nearby table there was a young man who had a look of la famille Berlioz about him, especially about the nose and mouth and in his abundant mop of curling light brown hair. But he lacked Hector’s poetry and gravity of countenance. I wonder if there are collateral lines extant around here . . .

I also noticed what I think was the cause of that squeaking noise I heard last night. They have a set of Western-salon swinging louvre doors between the kitchen and dining room, and they give out a creech every time a waiter or waitress passes through.

I shall say something about dinner, since I can’t afford many such, at 125F plus wine. It began with an amuse-guele in an egg cup. Layered, with aspic glaze. First bit tasted of chicken stock then as you ate lower with the tiny spoon there was a kind of vegetable puree mixed in. Carrot and tomato, I think.

Then came a nice bit of pâté chaud en croûte.

The fish course was a cold lobster pâté with a dollop of creme dressing with chives. The slice of pâté was very prettily decorated with chives and red and black caviar. On the side was a decorative lattice of haricots verts with tiny carrot balls inside the squares. A garnish more than anything, but it was cute. This was all quite delicious.

The only real disappointment was the main course. It was bits of duck that came drowned in a brown sauce, served in a copper skillet. The meat was rather overdone and the sauce reminded me too much of the omnipresent stuff the cooks at Coverdale* make from a mix. There were scalloped potatoes on the side and they did come off, however.

I’d pretty well eaten myself into a coma by then but still sampled four kinds of fromage off the cheese board.

And then there were little bonbon affairs and then the dessert I chose, a passion fruit mousse. Thought that was appropriate for celebrating Hector’s birthday . . .

Couldn’t finish any of these, and the waitress asked if I wanted to take it with me. With my bad French I gave her the impression I didn’t and as ungodly stuffed as I was I didn’t make any effort to correct that. Rather wish I had, now.

Chose a white Savoie for the wine. Fine with the lobster pâté but I think a red would have worked better with the duck.

I’m afraid I let my gourmandizing laissez-faire run away with me, however. I know the French take their eating seriously, especially Sunday dinner, and I can spend three hours over a multi-course meal with the best of them, which this afternoon I did. However, my sitting there patiently between courses letting the waiting folk assume I had nothing to do here in La Côte except pack in their cooking really reamed me for time. I barely was able to see the Musée Berlioz and then get back to the church for the concert. And I was late at that, making it for only the last two Faurés. They were the pieces I wanted to hear, but still I had no time to wander around the town and take pictures, at all. And the bus leaves at 9:13 AM tomorrow, which in this land of eternal daylight savings time means it will be just barely light.

As Mr. Chenley† said in his letter, the director of the Musée was most friendly and courteous. He even came downstairs (after I had explained that I was a member of the London Berlioz Society) to where I was looking at the chronology to give me a keyring and medal made for the 1969 centenary of Hector’s death.

What he did not give me was his name, nor I mine. For that matter, I am not even signed in here at the hotel. Madame says last night, oh, it can wait till morning. Very nice and trusting, but I don’t really care for the idea that if I croaked up here this evening they’d only know who I was by rummaging through my baggage.

Anyway, at the Musée it’s hard to tell what room is what, as there’s no way of knowing if the furniture is arranged as it was in Berlioz’s time or if it was just put in to look pretty.‡ I did ask which one was where Dr. Berlioz taught his son Latin. It’s the room opposite the kitchen.

There’s a chair in there that was Hector’s. Forgive me, mon bien-aime, but I’m afraid I was so far within myself that it was only my intellect that moved itself to realize, "He actually sat there."

It’s a charming house, however. Very nice marble fireplaces. And a stone sink in the kitchen. And plaster walls with painted designs.

The music isn’t piped anywhere but into the reception room, to the left of the entry, but you can hear it dimly upstairs. Bits of Harold, the Hamlet Funeral March, the Waverly and Le Corsair overtures . . . Nothing vocal or they might’ve gotten something live.

I had Volume I of my 1878 edition of the Mémoires with me, and showed it to the people on the desk. I didn’t understand all their comments but I gathered it was a reasonably good find.

They gave me a copy of the Bulletin of the French Society. And I bought a monograph on Hector’s childhood and adolescence (plus a few postcards). Tout en française, à bien sûr, meaning I’m in for the long haul with this language . . . but I would dearly love to have a companion with me to whom I could speak English and who could maybe supplement my French . . .

Got back to the hotel (where I dropped off my camera) then over to the church just before they were to do the Cantique de Jean Racine. The director of the Musée was there and very kindly made sure I got in on a student ticket and found me a seat closer to the front. The choir, who I think are called "À Coeur Joie," and the orchestra, the Orchestre de Chambre du Dauphine, did a positively luminous job on the prayer. The Fauré Requiem was lovely, too, but the men were just a tad harsh in places and the baritone soloist was choppy in his phrasing. Still, they did lots better than we did in Hector’s Te Deum last Saturday. And the audience liked it. Set up a rhythmic clapping afterwards . . . but there were to be no encores ce soir.

The acoustics in the eglise St.-André are pretty good. Apparently the nave used to have a wooden roof but it’s rough plaster now. The aisles are ribbed groin vaulted. The nave piers are great fat round Romanesque ones but the arches are all pointed. The architecture is in general rather klutzy and uncoordinated (nothing aligns or matches), but it’s solid and substantial nonetheless.

In spite of or because of what I experienced this afternoon and evening, I’m afraid I feel a bit depressed. The weather has a lot to do with it and so does the language. I can get my physical needs met in it but none of my emotional ones. I hope I pop out of this before the 23rd or else I’m going to make a pest of myself when I see Lukas*. He’s liable to get a hug whether he wants one or not.

Perhaps I would feel differently if I’d been more inspired by what I’ve seen today. But perhaps the voice and presence of men of vision speak more loudly in their works than in the sites and artifacts that knew them in their physical presence. Meaning I wasn’t as moved as I’d expected to be seeing the house where Berlioz grew up and learned Virgil and the first elements of music.

But I just had a rather alarming thought. Over the last fourteen and a half years since I learned and sang the Requiem, Hector's music has become internalized for me. It's become part of my personality as much as of his, and to a degree that’s also happened with the places and things he described in the Mémoires. So when I see them in person and their reality doesn’t fit the concept I had of them in my head, they seem somewhat irrelevant. Worse, they seem to take this person to whom my soul feels so close and remove him from me, to make him a stranger like all the strangers here.

Fortunately, I brought the music along. Oh God, let it not abandon me!

I think I should take advantage of the bathtub again this evening. Heaven knows when I shall have another chance . . .

A silly note here. My missing glove you know about. But here’s the further tally of items lost so far: My luggage keys and their neck chain, pulled off somewhere between Caen and Chartres (nothing was locked, fortunately). My Youth Hostel pass which I left at the desk at Chartres (they’re supposed to be sending it to the PO at Toulouse, poste restante). And I appear to have left my slip at the Auberge in Chartres as well. Now this is really too bad. It was good enough for me to wear but with its shot elastic and safety pins, it’s really no good to anyone else. I shall have to buy another, too. Pestiferous.

I can't hear that squeaky door below me tonight, so I guess the restaurant isn't open Sunday evenings. That's a blessing, at least.
†The then-secretary of the London Berlioz Society
‡The Musée was renovated in 2002-03 for the Berlioz birth bicentennial, so this state of affairs may well have changed.