How to Eat an Elephant …

For those of you not familiar with the conundrum question, “How do you eat an elephant?” , the answer is one bite at a time. I always knew that writing my book was going to be an elephant-sized task, hence my cunning plan to break this process down into daily comestible servings of 2000 words at a time.

Consistency and persistence were to be my watchwords, and in order to hold myself accountable I’ve been tracking my daily performance. It’s been most satisfying to see the daily tally add up and I’ve been basking in smug self-congratulation – until things went horribly wrong this week.

It all began with the weather. As previously flagged, I was looking forward to the first of my exploratory French adventures on my Saturday off. However, a consultation with the weather forecaster indicated that it was going to rain pretty much non-stop from Friday through until Monday. Thursday, on the other hand, was scheduled to be a gorgeous day. Why not just switch things around a bit and go to Narbonne on Thursday instead of Saturday?

And so I did.

Narbonne is a small town of 47,000 people, a short skip from the Mediterranean coast, and a cruisy half-hour by train from Carcassonne. It’s most famous for its Roman origins and was a major hub back in the first couple of hundred years AD. In the town square they have unearthed a section of the Via Domitia , an ancient Roman trade route between Italy and Spain, and beneath the modern streets lie a labyrinth of underground galleries, the horreum. Narbonne was also the regional headquarters of the Catholic church and there is a magnificent archbishops palace, complete with tower and dungeons, next to an impressive cathedral.

The town itself is very pretty, sitting on the Canal de la Robine, and today it is know as a destination for wine and food lovers. I lucked out, because Thursday is one of the market days in Narbonne and I had a lovely time wandering through the street market along Les Barques Promenade. and visiting the town’s famous covered market, Les Halles.

Flower market

Between 9 am and 3 p.m. I visited absolutely every attraction in the old city, including spending a couple of hours in the Art and History Museum in the Palais des Archevêques, with plenty of time just ambling through the cobbled streets and sampling some local ice-cream.

Canal de la Robine

It was a full day, but it wasn’t extreme enough to account for the absolute lethargy that struck me on Friday. As soon as I woke up I knew I wasn’t going to be writing that day. No morning walk. No coffee in the Place Carnot. I didn’t even turn on the computer. It was a complete and utter collapse.

And then of course the guilt kicked in. The problem with vigorously imposed self-discipline is that when it breaks down it offers unlimited potential to beat yourself up. I needed to hit 30,000 words by the end of this week, and there I was with only 26,000 under my belt, hiding in bed with the sheets pulled over my head. I writhed with self-disgust.

Perhaps it was the grizzly, grey day which poured with rain, as predicted. Perhaps my body thought it was Sunday after my illicit faux-Saturday the day before, and that I was therefore fully entitled to loll about doing nothing. I closed my eyes and tried to pretend it wasn’t happening.

Perhaps I should add resilience to persistence and consistency in my armoury of writing watchwords. On Saturday I girded up my loins and decided I simply had to get on with it. I was determined to to let one bad day derail the bigger elephant-eating plan. Cheered on by my weekly flowers, a lovely nodding bunch of peonies (charmingly called pivoines in French) I returned to the keyboard with a vengeance, bashing out a gratifying 2428 words. If I can manage another 1500 today I’ll be back on track.

Pivoines

So where does this resilience come from? I think it’s partly the solid work ethic drummed into me by my parents who always encouraged me to bounce back up, dust myself off and try again whenever I was knocked down by one of life’s challenges. And perhaps it stems from early reading influences. My sister Tracy reminded me this week of one of my very favourite books as a child, The Little Engine That Could. Like the little blue engine my mantra is “I think I can, I think I can, I think I can.” And so I do.

I’m also encouraged by the way my story is developing. The characters are really coming alive for me and though I don’t have the temerity to claim that I’m penning deathless prose, I do think its pretty entertaining. Before he left, HWB read the first chapter and I was thoroughly gratified when at one point he laughed out loud. And Rachel of the fierce green editing pen, who is the only other person who has been permitted a glimpse of the Work In Progress, has been pleased to bestow a LOL upon me. I haven’t previously said that I wanted this book to be funny, but I do, and the fact that two preliminary readers have had a giggle suggests I might be on the right track.

I can see that my self-imposed diet of elephant steak has the potential to get a bit wearing. But I’m chewing on valiantly …

Ma Vie en France…

At the end of my first week home alone in Carcassonne I feel like I’ve lived here for ages. I’m a creature of habit, and I like having an established routine, especially now since I have set myself a major task that can only be completed if I plod steadily and consistently forwards each day. So, I thought this week I’d share with you the shape of my days and weeks here.

Each morning I’m woken by the bells of Église Saint-Vincent, the 15th century gothic church which is literally outside my window. The bells, which begin tolling at 7 am. and wrap up for the night at 11 p.m., are setting the pace of my day. On Sundays there is a perfect riot of bells for several hours – they are pealing now as I write.

Because I’m full of the excitement and wonder of being here I leap forth from my bed with gusto and go for an early morning walk. There are several lovely routes to chose from and my favourite so far is the waterside walk along the River Aude which flows between La Cité  and the Bastide. Spring has well and truly sprung here and we’ve had some lovely days. I’m fascinated by the small trilling songbirds here, so different from the avian chorus I’m used to at home. On Wednesday I spotted a grey heron scouting for fish.

Riverside ramble

On my way home I stop in Place Carnot at Chez Felix, an institution which has been dishing up café to the locals for 70 years or so. I had the thrill of being greeted by name and having my double espresso predicted and brought to me without ordering on Friday. I smiled smugly at some tourists at the next table.

Next stop is Les Délices de Je, my local boulangerie, where they are also now able to predict my standard request for une baguette. The smell of freshly baked baguettes is mouthwatering. I think I’m really, really going to miss this daily indulgence when I return home.

Baguette heaven

On Mondays and Thursdays I’m going to pilates at Zen Yoga Studio which is just around the corner from the apartment. Philippe, the instructor, speaks no English so getting myself enrolled there and following instructions has been a considerable challenge for my rudimentary French skills. I’m across inspirer and expirer, jambe, bras, nez, bouche and périnée and picking up more words each class.

Zen

Then, of course it’s down to business. Rain, hail, or shine I am determined to produce 2000 words per day and – this week at least – I’ve nailed it. The grand total is now standing at 20,041 – or a quarter of the way there! The magical view from my window continues to inspire and my desk also now features a bunch of flowers from the Saturday market. I don’t know the name of this week’s selection, but the heady yellow blooms were paired with eucalyptus leaves and I’ve been transported, a little, back to Narooma.

Weekly floral delights

Saturdays are my day off so yesterday, after a happy foraging expedition to the market, I took myself for a three-hour hike to see a bit more of the countryside. From La Cité I headed east through rolling hills covered with vineyards and small farms with herds of goats, gazing horses and one belligerent donkey who clearly objected to my gazing over his fence.

Ahhhhh…

A stiff climb was rewarded with panoramic views across La Cité, the Bastide and the Aude plain towards the Montagne Noire in the far distance. I sat on the hilltop for some time, dreaming dreams and recharging my batteries. In coming weeks I plan to intersperse local walking adventures on Saturdays with forays to nearby towns. I have my eye on Narbonne for next week …

Sunday is blog day and will also feature as bath indulgence day. On the corner of my street is a delicious shop selling soaps, creams and bath salts, all organic and made locally. I’m treating myself to a weekly bath bomb – tonight’s is orange scented 🙂 I think that as I wallow in the fragrant oils I can be just a little bit proud of what I’ve achieved so far.

On my hike yesterday I was fascinated by the array of wildflowers growing along the roadsides and in the furrows between the vines. The poppies in particular caught my attention – a poignant reminder of blood-bathed fields of war – evoking a response in a way that the plastic reproductions in Australia never have. Wild jasmine, hedge roses, diminutive daisies, purple pimpernels – it was just lovely. And as I examined some baby grapes I reflected that they will ripen and come to fruition around the same time as I finish my book.

On my way home I came across a cluster of superbly fat and fluffy dandelion seed flowers. I made a literary wish of course, and watched the seeds scattering on the wind, but I know that it is going to be sheer grit and determination (along with a smattering of inspiration) that is going to get this book written.

10,041 Words and Counting …

A week and a half into the core writing zone of my journey I’m pleased to be able to report that I’ve hit the 10,000 word marker. It was a mixed week, with massive output on a couple of days, some moderate achievements on a couple of others and one complete wipe-out day when I did a big fat zero (don’t ask!).

You may recall my firmly-stated resolution to produce a standard 1500 words per day, but perhaps unsurprisingly this hasn’t quite translated into reality. I put this down to still being in somewhat of a ‘settling in’ phase, a second and most unwelcome bout of flu, and the competing allure of going out adventuring with HWB while he has been here with me. A jaunt to the medieval walled citadel, La Cité, was obligatory and it’s been impossible to resist several petites exploratory and coffee drinking forays. I’m feeling like a local in la Place Carnot.

Going native …

As I type, I’m home alone and HWB is somewhere in the air between Toulouse and Frankfurt. He is going off to pursue his own artistic and business dreams in Germany, Italy and Malta, leaving me to focus 100% on my writing for the next seven weeks. But before we parted company we had a quick weekend getaway to Toulouse.

Streets of Toulouse

La Ville Rose is the fourth largest city in France and is only a quick 40 minute train ride from Carcassonne. It is famous for its pink brick buildings which glow gorgeously in the sunset and for its local dish of cassoulet (confit of duck, pork sausage and harricot beans in a kind of stew arrangement). Cassoulet is famous throughout the Languedoc region, but Toulouse is its capital so we went in search of the real thing and found it in a fantastic restaurant called La Cave au Cassoulet. As indicated by the name, it is located in an underground cellar, and along with the véritable cassoulet we indulged in pâté de foie gras, tarte tatin and a tasty local Château Laffitte Teston. It was all très délicieux, but not quite as fabulous as Hannah’s farewell French feast 🙂

Yum!

This morning we enjoyed a leisurely breakfast of crepes under the plane trees in Place St-Georges (the former town execution venue) before exploring the
Musée des Augustins. This fine art museum specialises in sculpture and paintings from the middle ages and is set in the stunning cloisters, church, halls, sacristy and dortoirs of a 14th century monastery.


Musée des Augustins

Aside from being the home of pink bricks, le cassoulet and a regional reputation for excellence in les beaux-arts, Toulouse has also had a long history as a centre of violet growing. The little purple flower is the emblem of the city, and one of my personal favourite flowers of all time. Imagine my delight when we discovered the charming Maison de la Violette, a showcase of all things violet housed in a barge on the Canal du Midi. I resisted the temptations of violet tea and candied violet sweets, and reluctantly pulled myself away from some lovely violet-flowered tea pots, but I couldn’t resist buying a little bottle of violet eau de parfum. I intend to squirt myself with it if/when I find that writing inspiration has momentarily fled.

The scent of writing success …

Tomorrow I shall roll up my sleeves and set to writing with reinvigorated fervour. And just to spice things up, I’ve decided to set myself a new challenge. When HWB returns from Malta at the beginning of July we will be celebrating our 13th wedding anniversary. We have decided to mark the occasion in style with a bang-up dinner at a Michelin-starred restaurant in La Cité called Le Barbacan which we confidently expect to be a once-in-a-life-time meal. How much more celebratory would it feel, I thought, if it was also the Completion of the Book triumph dinner? And as an added bonus I would also then have two weeks of fancy-free holiday time with HWB before we return home to Australia.

This revised target means that I have to shave two weeks of writing time off my projections and increase my minimum production to 2000 words per day. Challenging – yes. Achievable – also yes. I haven’t yet found myself in the writing ‘zone’ where output becomes effortless, but it’s been fun and I think the tale is shaping well. And I’m sure that now I am alone and free from husbandly divertisements the words will flow abundantly.

I leave you today with a pic of a stunning rose from the cloister of the
Musée des Augustins which is the exact colour of my wedding dress 🙂

Encore, la vie en rose

Et maintenant ça commence …

Bonjour Carcassonne! HWB and I arrived here on Wednesday after a week travelling by train from Prague with pit stops in Munich and Lyon. Our enjoyment was slightly hampered by HWB succumbing to my Egyptian flu (proper flu, not mere man flu!) but we had a great time despite this setback. I could rave on about the delights of weißes Bier and pretzels at the Hofbräuhaus  and the wonders of the Roman amphitheatre in Fourvière, but as previously established this is not a travel blog, so I will spare you the rant.

Wednesday was May Day and as we set out from Lyon train station we came across dozens of vendors selling small bunches of lily of the valley.
Apparently, it is a tradition on this day to offer a sprig of muguet to loved ones as a token of luck and prosperity for the year ahead, so of course HWB felt impelled to present me with a small posy. It is sitting now on my desk along with my other items of inspiration (more later).


Bouquet de maguet – a May Day tradition

Carcassonne, and our apartment, are everything we could have imagined. The view from my writing desk is every bit as stupendous as anticipated. Today it is very clear and I can see the snow capped peaks of the Pyrenees Mountains in the distance as well as the nearer and even more breathtaking prospect of La Cité (the walled citadel). It’s been freezing cold and we’ve both been sniffing, shivering and sneezing so we haven’t yet explored this wonder – a delight to be anticipated. I understand there will be jousting tournaments in July …

Oh yeah …

We have made a few exploratory forays around the Bastide Saint-Louis, the old town which is our home, and the most fabulous feature so far is the farmer’s market held in the Place Carnot each Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. It is here that I have most tested my rudimentary French which seems to be sufficient for commerce if not yet for conversation.

Place Carnot – farmers’ market

The market is jam-packed with mouth watering goodies and we have launched ourselves on the local cuisine with gusto! I’ve never seen so many varieties of heirloom tomatoes (in fabulously wonky shapes), asparagus with the girth of a broom handle, mountains of artisnal baguettes, vats of olives prepared to old family recipes, honey scented with the herbs of the garrigue, a plethora of mouthwatering sausages and hams and strawberries that actually taste like strawberries. And don’t even start me on the cheeses! We came home with a satisfyingly bulging bag of treasures and some irises just for pure spring pleasure.

Yum!

And so, being unpacked, well-stocked and acclimatised, the long-anticipated moment arrived. It was time for the writing to begin (insert slowly intensifying drum-roll here).

My first act was to create the requisite ambience and set up my desk with all of my aides to creativity. In addition to my Inner Critic, mocked-up novel, lapis lazuli egg, Thoreau mousepad and writers’ notebook I’ve added two new items garnered on my travels.

The first is a small statue of the Egyptian god Thoth. This ibis-headed deity was the god of writing, magic and wisdom and he is often portrayed with stylus and papyrus in hand. Very sensibly, writing in ancient Egypt was considered a sacred profession and there was a Prayer to Thoth that writers intoned to call down his inspiration. It opens thus: “Come to me, Thoth, O noble Ibis. O god who longs for Khmunu, O dispatch-writer of the Ennead, the great one of Unu. Come to me that you may give advice and make me skillful in your office.” I don’t anticipate intoning the prayer of Thoth, but I like his poised pen and beaky face and the reminder he brings of the higher purpose I’m striving to achieve here.

Thoth!

My second treasure was found in an obscure manuscript shop in the back streets of Vieux Lyon. It is a hand-tinted 1880 engraving of a falcon and it leapt out the stack and insisted on coming with me. I’m still devoted to my eagles, but my protagonist Tessa Falkner has got a bit of a falcon thing going on, so it’s really for her.

My falcon

And now for the question hanging on everyone’s lips. Have I written?

Indeed I have! I am proud to report that the word count currently stands at 3919 – or almost 5% of my projected output for an 80,000 word novel. When the moment came to put fingers to keyboard I suffered no existential crisis. My lost voice was found and the words bubbled forth in a happy and abundant flow. I’m not writing deathless prose, but I’m quietly content with what I have achieved so far. It’s only the first step in what remains a quite long journey, but I my intent and focus are strong and I’m eager for more.


And she’s off!

In closing today, I’d like to add a sound track to today’s blog. Since arriving in France I’ve had Édith Piaf’s immortal song swirling in an endless loop in my head. I’ve sung it, whistled it, hummed it:

Quand il me prend dans ses bras
Il me parle tout bas
Je vois la vie en rose

I’m deeply thankful, profoundly conscious of how lucky I am, and brimming with hope and possibility. La vie en rose indeed …