I started in Cambrai, where I had a wonderfully comfortable bed in a hotel that had seen better days but still had its dignity (unlike the unfortunate Pension Arenberg in Vienna). I took this picture from my position in the breakfast room while I was waiting for my coffee:
Then I walked to the library:
I was greeted by a friendly archivist and given full run of the manuscript - want to take digital images of the whole thing? Sure! I spent the morning doing the description, ran out for lunch, and came back in the afternoon and took 238 pictures - one for each folio. I had to shoot one-handed because the library didn't have anything for propping books open, and I was feeling the burn by the end.
Always nice to find cute doodles - fairly rare in my dry philosophical manuscripts, though I've noticed that the Italian monks were WAY more prone to drawing silly pictures in their books.
I spent the afternoon in the company of two really lovely ancient archival troglodytes, and I took a couple of surreptitious snaps. One of them is reconstructing the social history of a French town that no longer exists:
I'm not sure what the other one was doing but he winked at me and it was adorable:
Things I saw on my lunchtime walk:
A word on lunch: when I saw this sign indicating that potatos were a specialty, I was honestly expecting potatos au gratin to be what we get when we say it in the states.
But here, a potato au gratin is actually a baked potato smothered in cheese. If you order a potato and a Strasbourg sausage and a lunch, THIS is what comes out:
I am pretty sure it shortened my lifespan by at least six months. I ate half of it and wasn't hungry for dinner 7 hours later. I ate again the next morning, and I wasn't suffering. That thing on top of the hot dogs are two sunnyside eggs that were runny of yolk but crispy of bottom; I think they were fried in a pan full of browning butter for less than a minute. They were pretty good, it has to be said. Lethal, but delicious.
There was also a beautiful cathedral in Cambrai, and I took some pictures in it.
Is it wrong that I find La Motte Fenelon kind of hot here? He looks like young Isaac Newton.
I was charmed to discover this view of the angels adorning the front of the altar:
The next day I got on the train back to Lille and across to Saint Omer. Saint Omer has been a kind of magical place for me. I found some new clothes that fit beautifully and cost very little, when I needed them most. I found my favorite hard-to-find French potato chips (roast chicken and thyme flavor) in the tiny grocery store next to the laundromat that I also really needed desperately, which was next to the store that had my new clothes. Again, I was given full run of my manuscript - and I can't tell you how much I love working from digital images instead of microfilm for transcription. No words. The librarian was also lovely and friendly and we had a wonderful chat about the history of Cambrai, the library (the city of Boulogne STOLE BOOKS from Cambrai! So they'd have enough to qualify for government funds for a patrimoine library! And they still have them!), the ruined abbey I saw when I was walking into town from the train station - she appreciated my questioning interest in all these things and suggested that I might like to go to a visite guidee (a guided tour) of the abbey and the library on Saturday. Would I? Oh hell yes.
My manuscript is the small white one front left.
I love the library in Saint Omer because the stacks and the reading room are the same thing. It is beautiful and it smells amazing.
While we were talking about eccentric manuscript codices she offered to show me a book that still had the fur on the hide of the binding. Yes please! And I got to pet it.
Eventually I sat down and got to work:
After the library closed I went back to the hotel and collected my laundry and headed out to find a laundromat. I was pleased to discover one in walking distance, but to say that it was run by a terrifyingly eccentric old lady would be a huge understatement:
"Tenue correcte exigee"? What is this, a ball? I didn't see the dress code posted, but usually "tenue correcte" means suits and ties for the gents and skirts or dresses for the ladies. Also, no drankin' in this laundromat, damnit. There were so many signs in the laundromat - and none of them were related to the operation of the ancient laundry machines. I was wandering around cursing under my breath trying to figure it out when the terrifying old lady came out of a door that looked like wall and announced that she had been watching me on her surveillance cameras and was here to show me how to run the machines. She pointed at her surveillance cameras. There was one in every corner. Of a a laundromat that was maybe 10x15. Uh. OK. While I sat there doing my laundry periodically I would do little dance steps and wave to the camera. Might as well entertain, if I've got an audience.
The next morning I went back to the library to work on the manuscript's watermarks. They didn't have a Briquet, but there's a unicorn and a shield and this weird thing that I am going to have to look up:
I walked forever yestereday. According to my pedometer I walked 5.7 miles total. I walked to and from the library, getting a little lost on the way back. I walked to and from the far post office (to find it closed) and then to and from the close post office. Then I walked back to the ruined abbey for the guided visit, which would ultimately involve walking to the library again, then the museum, then back to the abbey. But I never made it to the museum or the reception for the vernissage. I will tell you why in a minute, but first: pictures of the ruins of the abbey.
I learned (once the guided tour part started) that the poor abbey was the victim of stupid peasants throughout the course of the last 200 years. First it was ransacked by revolutionaries who hated religion and education as much as they hated aristocrats. All part of the evil hegemonies. These assholes are, in my opinion, the distant ancestors of the asshats who think that we shouldn't teach Great Books or Western Civilization. Then the books they didn't destroy sat in the destroyed abbey for about 50 years. And then they got recuperated, but of course most of them were ruined. And then the city of Bologne stole almost a hundred more so they could have a library too. And then the people of Saint Omer destroyed the abbey even more by taking it apart to use the stones, though the literati and philosophers in Paris howled and raged against it. And then in the 19th century a gasworks factory destroyed even more by having an explosion a few feet from it. Just in the last few years did they decide to protect what's left, and there's really not much. While I was angling for a picture of the gasworks explosion part, a woman walked up to me, and took me by the arm, smiling hugely. She said: "Sarah?"
You could have knocked me over with a feather, I was so gobsmacked. "Christie?" I said. "Non, Julie!" she said "Mon dieu!" I cried. "C'est pas possible, Julie Ray de Lille!" and we hugged each other and carried on, rather disrupting the guided tour, so then we quieted down. But kept poking each other and giggling at how crazy it was. This girl was my very best girl when I lived in Lille in 1996. I adored her. She made me soup. We had a lot of adventures together. Ate a lot of meals at this one Chinese restaurant, and talked late into the night many times - we were 20 and 23, respectively. And here she was, right in front of me, saying "Sarah?"
We made it through the rest of the tour of the abbey and the library, but then decided to bail and go to a cafe to have a drink. She told me that she was pretty sure it was me, but had hesitated because "Sarah Smith n'apporterait jamais des chaussures si moches!" (Sarah Smith would never wear such ugly shoes!) in reference to my admittedly not even slightly chic hiking boots. I laughed and laughed. "Tu les as pas mis a Paris, j'espere!" she said. You didn't wear them in Paris, I hope! I assured her that I had not.
We talked for a couple of hours. We drove to the house of a friend of hers who lives in the town who had borrowed her GPS when he was in Dunkerque. We drank tea and talked and watched his son play with his soldiers and castle:
We came back to Saint Omer and had dinner at an Indian restaurant, and talked for another five hours. The very best part of it all was that even though it was a wonderful shock at first, it quickly seemed perfectly normal and natural to be sitting face-to-face with her, talking about EVERYTHING, just like we did when we were kids. I can't tell you how grateful and happy I am at the absolute miracle which is having her just appear like that, and to be back in contact. It's possible that she'll be able to come up to Bruges next week - at any rate, we're back in touch, and now that we're grown up and France has the internet, we'll never be lost to each other again. And I'm so glad!
So that was my magical two days in Saint Omer, where all my casual wishes came to pass. No dice on "I wish I had a million dollars" or "I wish I was a size 12" but still. It was really nice.
Can you believe this thing with Julie? I mean REALLY!