OUBLIETTE ALOOF JUDDERED
Leymen’s acknowledged eminence grise of local village history, Max Wyss, lives within a stone’s throw of the Chateau de Landskron at the top of the hill. He runs the society that undertakes and administers repairs to the castle. I went to see him as part of my occasional research into the history of the village. He knows much about the castle’s tragic and tempestuous history, and especially the last years of the Bourbon Ancien Regime in which a Louisiana-born French army officer was indicted and banished from the royal court in Versailles by the King’s notorious lettre de cachet for a misdemeanor unknown. Conveyed to theLandskron, he was solitarily confined in a dark oubliette in the Chateau for over twenty years with a minimum of sustenance and an absence of care. Max told me that back in 1769 the prisoner’s wretched and despairing cries for help could be heard daily across the valley for months (although Max didn’t look that old). Max kindly gave me photocopies of documents that will help me continue my research into this fascinating story.
There was a wine and food tasting fair in the village hall, and the Salle de Landskron was full of choice cuts, candies and other comestibles, as well as the inevitable selection of fine wines from across the country. I went on the first night with Martin and Wynne, ate carpes frites, the local delicacy, and stayed late over pinot gris and cultured conversation. We also had guests for our bed and breakfast service, visiting from the Bretagne. They enjoyed our overnight services and breakfasted like royalty but didn’t have a great success at the fair with their seaweed products. However, they were transfixed with delight at seeing the storks flapping lazily around the Wolfsloch field next to us, mentioning this fact in their airb&b online feedback. The bed and breakfast enterprise continues well, and we have had more guests staying longer, and leaving great reviews.
We were delighted to hear that we had another new neighbour: Linden Stutt Rea, who arrived newly born to our friends Ginelle and Jeff. Obviously that satisfactorily explained those storks in the Wolfsloch.
After a protracted contract negotiation, I started working in Rome for a new client and will continue to do so for most of the next several weeks over the summer. I had to do some sudden forward planning before leaving, including bringing my paperwork into a form capable of being understood by others, locating and ordering long-needed spare parts for the strimmer, cutting back the luxuriant bamboo-dominated undergrowth around the greenhouse, staking up the tomato plants, reorganizing our chaotic mobile and fixed telephone arrangements into one contract, paying all the bills I could possibly find upstairs, downstairs and in my lady’s chamber, arranging for our septic tank to be connected to the main sewer, and bringing to an end my relationship with Sunrise, the stone deaf Swiss telephone company, to whom I have paid thousands of euros over years in return for a string of service provision failures that made me technically unreachable, digitally aloof and tragically unresponsive during key business opportunities. I also brokered optimistic arrangements for our holiday house La Hune to be ready when we go there on holiday next month.
So it was that one dusty and hot Saturday afternoon, having spent the morning weeding, seeding, clearing and gardening, I climbed into our old car (the one without air conditioning, windows that opened, or dashboard electrics) and drove falteringly off due south into the real heat. The faltering – more a juddering – was a concern, as it sounded to me like a big end problem: for example a cracked cylinder or a blown gasket (and I have now reached the limit of my knowledge of car mechanics).
It may be an old saying that all roads lead to Rome, but the road I took from Basel via Luzern, the Gotthard Tunnel and Lugano continued determinedly south across the border into Italy near Milan and through Parma, Firenze and finally to Rome. Its modern name is the E35 and it conveys a jalopy to Rome as in a medieval pilgrimage. I stayed overnight in Emilia Reggiana, near Parma, and managed to get a comfortable room and a three course meal with the best parmiggiano reggiano cheese I have ever had, all for under 50 euros. I told the patrone I didn’t eat meat and he laughed (so I missed two courses altogether)
But the car was definitely not well. It had been coughing and spluttering for many weeks before the day I drove it to Rome, but nevertheless, like a faithful old warhorse, it did its very best to comply with my demanding expectations. Towards the end of the first day I filled the petrol tank with an unfamiliarly high octane petrol and the spluttering suddenly became far worse, with the car losing speed rapidly and repeatedly while I was on the motorway. I slowed to the hard shoulder, thinking that the different grade of petrol was the problem, but the accelerator pedal was no longer reliable. For the next 400 kilometers on the second day I chugged uncertainly in the slow lane of the motorway, juggling frantically and continuously with all five gears in order to get any sort of forward traction as the car got ever weaker, and as the drivers behind me got more and more abusive. I despaired that I was ever going to finish the journey. But like the loyal old retainer that it was, late afternoon that car hauled me over the line: it finally reached Fionnuala‘s house in Olgiata, juddered loudly and was still. If it had been a horse it would surely have expired after its long and difficult exertions. My hosts Fionnuala and Andrew brought in my bags, gave me a glass of prosecco and conducted me to a chair by the swimming pool after I had unstuck myself from the driving seat. It was probably the most difficult car journey I have ever had.
And yes, that is saying something…
I had broken the journey by stopping on the way to see an old acquaintance Martin, who lived near Viterbo, and we passed a pleasant couple of hours together at a restaurant near his house. The respite it gave both my troubled car and me probably allowed us to complete the final leg of the journey with mens sana in corpore sano. Anyway, prosecco is a great stimulant and my spirits at the final destination in Olgiata were lifted by the bubbles. Later that week I coaxed the car into another difficult drive just a few kilometers to the nearest garage and left it there for what looked like a sentence of death from the affable mechanic. I feared the worst. And, sure enough, two days later came the awful judgment.
It lived! 250 euros later I was back in the saddle again and singing like a cowboy. It wasn’t the big end after all, it was the bobina. How could I have been so heartless as to presume that the car was a goner? I and that car, which I have now belatedly christened Galahad, have a future reborn.
Galahad and Lionel, June 2015
The following day, I started work in a Roman suburb, in the romantic-sounding Parco de’ Medici, which turns out to be closer in appearance to the car park in Lewisham Shopping Centre. Thanks to the enthusiastic and generous hospitality of Fionnuala, Andrew and Evelyn, my Roman baptism has been far easier than most such. We get around the Rome ring road just like Romans with barely a reference to conventional driving rules on lanes, overtaking, cutting in, hard shoulders and so forth. Rome is a wondrous and chaotic city with the aggravation caused by the crazy drivers more than balanced by the glorious food and wine, and in just over two short weeks I have probably had more than enough of both. But our family holiday in south west France, for which I shall first return to Basel, is now just days away.
And this time I am not forcing Galahad to come with me. As Fionnuala’s namesake, Lord Alfred, noted of the noble Sire (and of much else besides),
O just and faithful knight of God!
Ride on! the prize is near.
Long may we run.