Thursday, 8 July 2010

At Grez-sur-Loing

And so we arrive, Keith and I, after the two day drive from home to here. Much delayed by two hours spent in 'bouchons' on the Paris road network - in 35.5 degree heat - we push our way through the heavy, double-height gates and into the courtyard. It's 8.30 in the evening; the stones of the raised terrace are hot from having banked the day's heat. Though we're still far from the river, the relative cool and shade on the terrace are as welcome as a dip there.

Dominating the terrace area is a tree whose crown of branches is so thickly packed with leaves that it looks like a great green pompom. The buildings on three sides of the terrace hold the upper garden like a sturdy chest with arms extended. Slightly dilapidated, slightly ageing, but with an air of permanence, the Hotel Chevillon welcomed us into its cour and its coeur.

We look a bit frazzled in these photos but that's because of the heat and the drive's long exhaustion. These two are taken on my mobile, just to record that we've finally arrived.

There's no one else here. The manager, Bernadette, has been in constant phone support while we were travelling but as we our delays grew longer and longer, she was unable to wait. The only other Fellow in the Hotel - a Finnish poet - is out. Imagine, then, walking through the doors and 'unpacking' the present that is Chevillon: the cool hall with its white walls and twisting, polished wooden staircase; the palacial sitting room with its blue and amber coloured glass and luxury furnishings that are a curious mix of antique and modern; the red dining area with its long and elegant table set with a red cloth and candles, and everywhere - on the walls, on the dressers - paintings and sculptures donated by the Fellows who've stayed here before us.

A note and an envelope containing keys and a welcome from Bernadette are on the bureau. Our apartment is on the first floor - up that grand but tired staircase and along the narrow wooden corridor. Our feet squeak on the seasoned wood as we walk past doors that are all locked. We arrive at apartment three, wondering if Robert Louis Stevenson himself might have lived here, and we step in to our two room flat, which is basic, clean and white. White walls, white bookcase and appliances, white painted French windows opening out on to the terrace and that tree, and white curtains. Two pine armchairs and a table that doubles as a desk (or vice versa) give the room some colour and the floor under our hastily kicked off shoes is cool blue. And of course, we are drawn to the window, opening it wide to let in the fresher air. Strange that that only picture I have to show this view is one taken two days later when the heavy rain came and removed all that excess heat from the air!

Perhaps the greatest surprise on that first day, after all the build up and all the expectation, is seeing the air filled with swallows. The garden is full of them, their flightpaths intersecting in what look like haphazard flightpaths without a control tower or collision. Graceful black and white birds slip through the air, crossing, rising and dipping, up into the height of the blue air till only a curve can be seen of them, then soundlessly down to feed their young in the wattle and daub nests clinging under the eaves and glued in to the corners of the window frames. They've come for the summer and so have we.

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