Wednesday, January 20, 2010

History's Mysteries

So this is how Oliver spends his Wednesdays away from school. And that's the Economie section of Le Monde, my friends. :-) I woke up panicked that it was only the girls who had no school Wednesdays, not Oliver - but a quick look at the website assured us that no, truly, all three kids have no school on Wednesdays. I'm clearly still getting used to the idea. I keep thinking there's something I'm supposed to be doing with them, a specifically French Wednesday thing, but when I casually (!) asked a mom at Tic Tac Magie about Wednesdays, she said it was all about relaxing, taking a break. The thing is, we never see any French kids out and about when we're out and about. Never. Part of this is good: we are so loud when we're outside (the kids are loud, we're loud trying to keep them quiet... we're just loud - I don't even know if this is American, I'm afraid that we're just a loud family), so we go to these beautiful open spaces and let the kids run around and, well, be loud. When we're in the city, we talk about our city voices (Iris has a volume scale: 3 in the city, 9 when we're playing outside). Part of this is strange: where are all the kids? what do they do? I am curious - give us four months or so and we may become intimate enough with someone to find out (I love how French friendships are very slow to develop - but then very deep).

So, what does being "in the city" mean? Well, it's actually great to live in a city which still has vestiges of its medieval city walls everywhere, because we've been able to give the kids a sense of boundary. If we're in the medieval suburbs (outside the city walls), there's going to be a park or a promenade nearby; if in the medieval city walls, it's all houses all the time. Today we traced as much of the medieval city wall as remains, and consequently found the place of three of the city gates (how many there were originally, we don't know - Vannes had nine!). Our 17th century house is about 3 houses down from where one of the city gates stood until the 18th century - the original builder was pushing the envelope of the city limit!

We also wanted to discover a couple of churches that had thus far eluded our understanding. We pass this church every day on our way to school and the left tower is always lit (Quasimodo volunteered the kids, of course). What could it be? Well, we got up close to it, but it was locked up tight (so who lights the lights? ooooo!) - there was a nice lawn and a huge parking lot in front of it, where they used to hold fairs (cows, pigs and horses were sold) up through the early 20th century. The façade is very strange and it took me a while to figure things out.

But I figured it out! Looking down the side of the building, I understood that what remains standing is not a strange west façade, short nave and ambulatory, but in fact, a transept arm - a northern transept arm to be precise (which makes perfect sense, as then the fairs would be off of the southern side, traditionally the "people's" side of churches, whereas the northern transept was usually reserved for clergy - and indeed, there is a House of St. Martin there today which seems to be a charitable organization). All those years of art history training did not go to waste! Of course, if I'd bothered to read the sign in front of the church, I would have found out much the same thing. :-) Including the additional information that the eastern end was never finished. And this for a church begun in the 12th century! I love it - and the kids do, too - it's a survivor.

Here's one of the entrance points from within the extended castle wall - you go down those steps and you're at the river which, when crossed in the Middle Ages, would have put you in another archbishopric altogether! That's right, the other side of the river was a whole other town, jurisdiction, liturgy (well, not that different, but some differences still), and probably culture. Still today, when you go to the Faubourg Ste.-Croix, there's a different feel to it: for one, it's almost completely residential; for two, there are lots and lots of British folks walking about. They all have great views of the castle from across the river and lovely walks to take everywhere.

See what I mean?


Our mission was to discover the little church of Ste.-Croix, up on a hill, also with a fantastic view of the river and the castle. This church had been part of an entire complex in the 15th century, with priory and everything. Today, it stands over a very full cemetery, and I was happy to see the kids be respectful and (yes!) quiet. The church was locked up tight, has clearly been reworked many times (a latest inscription is from the 18th century), but was started in the 13th century. I hope that it opens in the spring time - Oliver and I peeked in through the keyhole (once he heroically poked all the cobwebs out with his stick) and saw beautiful stonework, lots of equipment and boards lying around, but also two lifesize statues, one clearly of the Virgin Mary. The sculpture here is from the 15th century and features (according to the sign which I did read this time!) St. Anne holding the Virgin Mary (although it looks like a classic Sedes Sapientiae, Mary as the Throne of Wisdom holding Christ) on one side, St. Lawrence and his grill (instrument of martyrdom not cookery); Christ on the Cross; and St. John the Baptist and the Lamb of God - a beautiful array of figures. I'd like to learn more about these standing sculptures - they must be related to or be antecedents of the famous Calvaries that dot the Breton landscape.

After that, it was back to the Lists which, as you can see, Eleanor clearly enjoys. She gave both me and Mac a run for it. That little girl is fearless - she really does charge, you know! I may not know what we're supposed to do on Wednesdays, but we're having fun and the kids are getting out and playing games and telling stories. In fact, today started with Oliver telling the girls a story on the couch at home. Love that.

And for you Serge Gainbourg fans, a biopic came out today and has been the talk of every radio and TV show - it was even in the local paper. Vive le chanteur!

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