Travels with Mama 2

We stayed in a two star hotel in Rheims. It was deceptively large. Light grey stonework arched over a heavy oak coach entrance of what appeared to be a single house. Once through this passage, there were modern glass doors with thin strips of brass mounting, top and bottom, to hold them to the hinges on the side, but inside there was evidence of many years of renovation ending with the 1960’s.
We had been assigned a room and found it far at the end of several corridors. The hotel facade looked like a narrow four storey houses built in stone, but from the inside passageways seemed to extend its ownership over three or four houses-worth connected at uneven floor levels which required steps where the wall openings between them had been made.

We got our room changed, but it was not much closer to the elevator and still involved one set of stairs. It was too much walking for Mom.

The place was dark and gloomy. We were only staying one night and moving on, so we put up with it. We vowed to get a better hotel the next time through. When we did, a week later on our way back, we stayed at the only very modern hotel in Rheims, the Hotel de la Paix. Much to my surprise, we only paid ten dollars more for it and got a million dollars more in luxury. We had huge soft bath towels with the hotel name on it. The elevator was modern and polished. Our room was two steps away from it. Everything was well-appointed. Breakfast was in a light and airy room. The hotel staff was accommodating, something I couldn’t say for the previous location. For five dollars each we had stepped into the jet-set. It was a lesson for my travelling that paying a tiny bit more could result in a lot more comfort.

But back to the gloomy hotel:
We had our breakfast in a vast dining room whose only purpose was to serve breakfast. There were very few patrons in it. I wondered cynically about the room assignment we had had. Everything was dark in the decor – dark wood furnishing and dark wood beams overhead, deep red wall paper (at the turn of the century, this colour had some connotations of taste and wealth. Now it was merely depressing. The one window far to the front of the room brought no appreciable light to bear.

We made our plans for the morning. Mother wanted to rest. I wanted to go to see Madame Dewez. I had written her when I left Rheims six years before to say that I had left suddenly due to my father’s death. She had a number of my works on paper to sell on consignment plus some works that I had bought at auction – delicate pencil crayon drawings by an aristocratic woman who had travelled early in the century. I had purchased a set of sketch books at auction with these in them. I hesitated to cut them from the book but the binding was not good and I rationalized that if they remained in the book, no one would ever enjoy them.

I had not contacted Madame D. since that letter six years previous and I had not expected that she would still have them, nevertheless I would ask. Who knew?

To my surprise, she said, “I was half expecting you. I don’t know why, but I came across them last week and thought, it’s been a long time since I heard from Kay. I wonder what has become of her? They’ve been in the back waiting for you ever since you wrote. I just put them under the front counter yesterday.”

That really was curious! I asked her about the other drawings and she couldn’t remember them. She shook her head slowly, thoughtfully. It was a long time ago. Was my memory playing tricks on me. Had I only thought I’d given them to her? No, I was pretty certain.

I gave benefit of doubt, thinking that for her faithfulness in keeping my work, it was little payment for her to have the other drawings. I had arrived on foot, enjoying the walk through the city centre, passing by the little store, now vacant, where Franc and I had lived and centered our Brocante business. In six years, things had changed. Merchants we had known were no longer there. We were no longer there. Life trundled on with or without us.

Now I retraced my steps to the hotel, packed in Mama and our baggage, drove back up to within a few steps of the framing shop and left Mama in the car. I had noticed a florist across the street. I purchased a lovely exotic bouquet for Madame D. and presented it to her.

“You didn’t have to do that!” she exclaimed. But I was happy to honour her faithfulness and our acquaintance. We were not likely to see each other ever again. And it made her happy.

We travelled east to Trier to see more artist friends. I don’t remember the route that we took and my details or order of passage have been lost in the twenty year interval between the trip and now. We passed through Luxembourg city in the morning, earlier than the cafés were open. Nobody was about. Stores were still closed. It lacked the bustle and charm I’d remembered from my tourist days in full summer where there was a bright sunlight dappling holiday folk; where the city was decorated with bright summer flowers. We were approaching October rapidly. We found a place for coffee but I couldn’t engender any enthusiasm in Mother for how great I’d found this place when I had been here.

When we arrived in Trier (Treve, in French), I had no idea how to get to destination. I knew my friends lived right across the street from the Roman amphitheater. I stopped where I could, where there were enough people that someone might help us with even general directions. I have no German language skills. I can say Bitte or Danke and that is pretty much it.

I tried to pronounce amphitheater in as many ways as possible – Amph i tay at her; Omph i tee at her; Amph i tee a TER; but nothing seemed to work. I held my finger out in a signal to wait as he shook his head in incomprehension and made a gesture that made me think he might just leave in frustration. I grabbed a pen and my ever handy sketch book and wrote the word with a question mark following it.

“Ah, zo! ” and the man pronounced the word in German, nodding his head up and down as if he was a bobble doll, grinning all the while. I was pretty sure I’d said it like that in one of my variations, but it no longer mattered. We understood each other. He pointed the way. including a turn that he indicated with his hand turning in the air. “Ein kilometer” he said. There were some understandable words I could get.

“Danke, Danke” I said. I shifted the car back into gear and we drove off in the direction he had indicated. Soon there were signs. Soon I could see Olewiger street. In moments, we parked on the gravel in front of their modern home. It was not the house I had visited in 1976; that one had been a three or four storey stone built one from another century, steeped in history. The ground floor had been turned into a Ceramic studio. I remember so much beautiful stonework in the other one, with carvings at the front door that looked medieval, though they could have been from a revival period. I had no means of judging.

This house was Bauhaus simple in its lines. It had an open modern chrome and light mahogany kitchen. The dining room was only slightly separated from it. There were polished hardwood floors. The walls were white, perfect for hanging Guido’s modern pictures, and modest amounts of varnished wood trim. Down a few steps, there was a sunken living room. The house was perched on a hill and the view from the plate glass window was spectacular, reaching a hundred eighty degrees across the outskirts of the city below and the fields and forests that followed onward from them.

We ate an exquisite meal prepared by Klare. It was her husband who was the artist, and her art was in homemaking. The silver was laid on, and the best dishes. Mother was at home here. She knew every fork and spoon that had been set out with precision and taste.

Surprisingly, Mother was able to converse quite well in German. She had only studied it one year in high school, but she had studied Latin longer than that and the verb forms were easy for her. Between them, they struggled a little to understand. I marvelled at her memory and her capacity to pick up and work with information she had learned some sixty years ago.

Klare, who had been a volunteer tour guide for the Amphitheater, took us across the street to see the Roman ruins. She provided us with an informed commentary as we went and it made the event that much more special.

We regretted we had to leave, late afternoon. We were heading back to France for our whirlwind tour. They brought out a map and showed us a route that took us through a charming town just past the French German border. We took to the road in a driving rain going westward, going back on our final few days of our trip. About four thirty, the rain let up, and soon the remaining drizzle stopped. We signs for our overnight destination were clear.
“It’s going to be night soon,” said Mother.”Let’s stop at the first place we can find.” And we did. I would have loved to go on further, to see as much as I could until the last light of day, but compromises needed to be made. We settled into a fair size hostelry, to a room on the second floor. Before we went for dinner (it was only five o’clock) I insisted on puttering with my paintbox.

“You’ve driven so much, you deserve it,” she granted, and she lay down for a rest. She had had a wonderful day. I got out my paints and tried to put down the little valley before us on paper. To the east, there was a lovely rainbow, strong in its coloration, set against a bank of deep slate coloured clouds. The sun was topping the early autumn trees with their last rays of the day. It was delicious to see after such a rainy day.

(to be continued)

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