I’m seven years old, I’m on a ferry to France with my parents and brothers and sisters for a camping holiday and I’m waaay overexcited. It’s an overnight trip and I am an early riser. I leave my family in the cabin and make my way to the breakfast room alone. I take my breakfast tray and sit down at an empty table. A family approaches: they sit down and ask me why I am on my own. I say I am travelling to France on my own. “All alone?” they ask. “Yes,” I say, “my mother and father are dead. I am an orphan, and I am going to stay with cousins in France.” This elicits enormous sympathy. They tell me I am so brave. I am full of pride and pleasure, but it is shortlived. I look up and I see my mother, tall, tanned, blonde, standing over the table.
“All set, Róisín?” she says. “Ready to go?” My new friends are bewildered and the situation, to my horror, is quickly clarified. Then all I see are white teeth. Open mouths, all of those present, dark laughing spaces surrounded by teeth. I am more embarrassed than I will ever be again.
This is a bad start, but the camping is perfect. A swim in the pool before breakfast each day, followed by the arrival of a man in a van with fresh bread and croissants. Women more beautiful than any I have seen. Apple green hot-pant suits, white platform shoes, décolletage proud, brazenly displayed cleavage (I have NEVER seen that in my seven years of life), glossy dark hair – and all this glory without artifice, just as Nature intended. How did Frenchmen ever catch their breath? By being equally beautiful, I am sure, although at seven I only had eyes for the beautiful women.
Valence, somewhere near the south. I am fourteen, on a French exchange. I have joined the programme at the last moment and the only girl that’s left has scoliosis and has spent much of her youth in a red plastic back brace. She has enormous, clear blue eyes and long dark brown curls which she wears in a ribbon. She is pale and far less mature than the other French girls my schoolmates have “got”, who are tanned and sophisticated. The older boys drive Vespas. I have NEVER seen this in Ireland. My French exchange girl, Valérie, lives in a remote village, and prefers to play dolls with her young cousin than interact with me. We have nothing to say to each other. But every day at midday, at the stroke of 12, Madame calls “À table!” and every day she serves something incredible: coq au vin, poulet rôti, perfect cubed fries, leaves of lettuce so crisp and green I can’t get enough. In my mind I can see a tarte framboise à la crème anglaise that would make you weak with longing. I watch the clock every day. Monsieur reads Astérix et Obélix and laughs. I have never seen a grown-up read a comic book before. I try to read it but it’s too hard for me. I do notice that it’s all tu-toi so I do the same to Madame. She immediately corrects me. During the long afternoons, when the family is napping, I cycle around on Valérie’s bicycle through hot, deserted villages. I wander into a field, recently-cut and golden, and a black and white butterfly striped like a zebra, with red spots on its tails. At night time, we eat our meals on the terrace out front and glow worms pulse irridescent green on the walls. Little by little French, so impenetrable at the start, begins to feel less of a mystery.
Thirty years pass. I visit France many times. At seventeen I spend a lonely month in a summer school in Nice to learn more French, and one day I see a girl of about my age sitting on the quay. She is so exquisite that I cannot look away. She has light brown hair, a crochet top the colour of marrons glaces and a dusty brown skirt. Her skin is golden brown and smooth as silk. She stares at me coldly with light green eyes and licks her light green pistachio ice cream in its golden brown cone. I have never come across pistachio ice cream in Ireland, nor girls with such hauteur. I commit this colour combination, and the beauty of the girl, to memory.
At twenty-two I go to live in Paris and I travel everywhere on a big black Dutch bicycle. I work in a restaurant in Les Halles and a tiny bar near Montmartre but I’m fired from both jobs. Socially, I live on the peripheries of society. La périphérique. With every month that passes I slip a little further from a safe, successful future but at the last second I realise this, and although I never want to leave this intoxicating, glorious city, I return to Ireland and the straight and narrow.
From then onwards I visit France on holiday only. La Rochelle, Nice, the Pyrenees, La Ciotat, Montpelier. My mother and father find a perfect apartment in Nice, in the Russian Quarter. It has antique brown and blue tiles in the entrance passageway and kitchen, chestnut parquet flooring in the salon, an orange tree outside the patio doors and wide Carrara marble steps to the garden. My husband Marcel and I haul fish from the market, blue plastic bags groaning under the weight, and he cooks bouillabaisse. We swim in the sea, throwing caution to the wind in unexpectedly huge waves, bands of turquoise and indigo edged in bright white foam. Planes are always overhead in the cloudless blue sky. Cacti and agaves are everywhere, plump, spiky, exotic, exquisite. I am very sad when the apartment is sold, but before we leave for the last time we do our best to wash away the sorrow with bottles of chilled rosé in the garden.
The straight and narrow life turns out to be neither straight nor narrow, and in a series of serendipitous twists and turns I find myself the delighted and frequent recipient of invitations to work abroad, whether to teach or to portray a country to its best advantage through on-location sketching. This brings me to this week in Clermont-Ferrand, which has recently hosted an urban sketching festival called “Clermont Dessine” (Clermont Draws). It takes place in June every year. In January I am greatly honoured to be invited to teach as part of the festival, one of only two non-French instructors (the other is Belgian). Honour notwithstanding, I have no idea what an absolute treat lies in store for me on my arrival in la belle France.
Why am I invited? Because I speak French! It’s as simple as that. So all those lonely days in Valence and Nice, those days of dicing with danger in Paris – and of course the excellent tuition I had at school – have given me an ease with this magnificent language. Or have they? By the end of the week my mouth is exhausted from forming all those perfect, beautiful words with their elegantly-matched endings, and I slip gratefully into my mother tongue.
Here’s how the week goes.
Tuesday 14th June
We have all heard horror stories lately about Dublin Airport and queuing for security – hours and hours to get through, some of which are spent on the tarmac outside the airport – so I get up at an ungodly hour, catch a bus to Dublin and arrive four hours early for my flight. I am through security in fifteen minutes. At the departure gate the air stewards are queuing for the plane to Paris. All I can hear through snippets of conversation are many “uuuuuuh”s. I text this to my younger daughter: I have explained that in her French oral exams she must not say “ehhh” when searching for a word, but “uuuh”. I record it and send her a snippet. I fly to Paris and in the departure lounge I sketch what I see. I sketch it just as I intend to teach the next day to a group of novice sketchers: foreground first, each person sketched to completion, using a waterbrush and two colours, plus skin tones. I add green at the last minute and regret it.
The plane to Clermont-Ferrand is occupied by French people only. The atmosphere is jolly and upbeat, undiluted Frenchness. We touch down at 10pm and it’s deliciously hot outside. I am met by Tazab, my host. He is deeply bronzed, recently returned from a cycling trip around the Pyrenees , researching for his next book. I am so happy to be once again in the country I adore.
Wednesday 15th June
The multinational tyre and guide company Michelin is a son of Clermont-Ferrand, and I am to teach in the library of the Michelin factory, sharing a few tips on sketching people or strangers in the environment. The group I have been assigned is a mixture of children and adults: it’s a special jour familiale (family day) as a treat for the Michelin employees. At the end of the session I ask the group to do a blind contour drawing, which is to keep their eyes on their subject and draw it without looking down at the page even once. They are surprised at their results, some of which make them laugh, and the funny thing is that whereas it’s easy to distinguish the children’s drawings from those of the grown-ups in the normal sketching exercises, you can’t tell the difference with the blind contour drawing exercise. A darling little girl of about nine approaches and asks if she can draw me. She is a tanned a light caramel, she has twinkly brown eyes and glossy dark brown hair in a ponytail tied at the nape of her neck. She stands in front of me with her little drawing board to lean on, pencil flying, eyes closed – they’re squeezed shut. I am not entirely sure if she has misunderstood the blind contour drawing exercise or if it’s her little joke, but her huge smile as she scribbles suggests it’s the latter. I ask her if it’s okay if I move.
By the end of the afternoon I am done, and tell the students that I have just completed my first-ever workshop in French. I thank them for being so patient with my French and apologise for the words I have had to be reminded of a million times (to scribble, to rub out, to squint).
Later, the wonderful Tazab and his equally wonderful wife Sylvie take me high into the mountains around Clermont-Ferrand, a chain of extinct volcanoes, to swim in one of the lakes. Tazab tells me that when he was newly qualified as a doctor back in 2000 he made a house call to a patient in a tiny village (hameau) on the way to the mountains. The elderly man who lived there had no mod cons at all other than cold running water. No electricity. He had a bare earth floor and a straw mattress, barely twenty years ago. “Was he married?” I ask Tazab. He doesn’t know, but I doubt it.
We arrive around 8pm and it’s still very warm. We scramble down a steep bank to the water, our shoes scudding in the dirt. Dusty dry earth and stones spin down towards the lake. It is so steep that I fear I will make a premature entry into the water. The lake is perfect. Sylvie swims out a long way, as does Tazab, but I am afflicted with a fear of grabbing hands under the surface (or nipping pike) so I never get very far before I start to get the heebie-jeebies and turn back. We swim and have a picnic and afterwards perch precariously on pointy rocks, unwilling to shift lest we slip again into the water. Tazab and I start to sketch.
“My challenge to you,” says Sylvie, “is to capture the sunlight shimmering on the oak leaves that nearly touch the water.” “Sylvie,” I say, “I can sketch anything.” “I could,” says Tazab, “but I don’t have the right materials.” However, I fail Sylvie’s challenge and instead Tazab sketches me and I sketch the two of them, Tazab with his ever-present smile and Sylvie in her beauty, standing in the water. I don’t capture the light on the water as I would like: that white band is supposed to be the evening sun hitting the surface of the lake. But it is so peaceful: I am unused to sketching with peers, or those who sketch in my scribbly, literal style at any rate, and this is a treat for me.
We stand up slowly, my derrière in agony from the sharp rocky ridge, leave the steeply sloping bank and on the path back to the car park pass a few small lingering groups. Some have beer with them and look a bit rough but everyone, rough or smooth, offers a polite “Bonjour” and it’s all very civilised. I tell Tazab that France feels like a success story, that the French seem to have life sorted. He thinks for a second and says seriously that that’s true to an extent, but that the rise of populism, and the far right, is as evident in France as anywhere else. We drive home in the setting sun, the sky a deep gold over the mountains to our left. I’ll take that.
Thursday 16th June
I am free for the morning. Tazab’s father Jean Pierre, one of the main organisers of the festival and the man who invited me to Clermont Dessine, thinks I will enjoy L’Aventure Michelin, a museum dedicated to the history of the Michelin company and has offered to bring me. I want to walk somewhere in the morning and Jean Pierre tells me that’ll be too much for one day, but I don’t listen. This turns out to be a mistake. Instead of meeting Jean Pierre at midday and spending a leisurely afternoon at the museum I go for a walk to the neighbouring village. It’s more of an uphill hike in the hot sun through vineyards (nice) and along steep streets (not at all nice) than the walk I had in mind and I soon regret my choice. I am gasping for a coffee by the time I climb to the next village (Châteaugay) and eventually find the one café in the entire village. I wish with all my might that I had not come. Even my sketch is awful and I end up sticking a newspaper article about the festival on top, which Jean Pierre has cut out for me. I am desperate to avoid a walk back and ask in the café for a taxi. The only taxi driver in the village happens to live across the square. I knock on a heavy chestnut door, which is answered by a tattooed blonde woman, clearly in the middle of lunch, who calls her husband to come and get me. She’s kind and friendly, and probably feels sorry for this red-haired, sweaty pink foreigner melting in the heat.
By the time I get back to Tazab’s it’s late. I have time to sketch though as Jean Pierre is having lunch. He will be here in a while, so I sketch the entrance to Tazab and Sylvie’s house. I want to make a gift for them for their kind hospitality and I can’t think of anything to offer but a sketch. The sketch draws itself, the sunlight easily captured in Payne’s grey. The jug on the table, brought by Sylvie in case I get thirsty, makes the perfect focal point.
Jean Pierre picks me up at three, so we have less time in the museum than he would have liked. Still, it’s an amazing museum and I buy up half the gift shop, determined to return and take my time. Everything you ever wanted to know about how rubber tyres came to be is beautifully explained and displayed, but much more than that, it’s like looking inside the brain of thinking people, trying to come up with solutions to easing travel for everyone. I loved it.
In the evening I meet Juliette Plisson, my fellow sketching instructor, who has come all the way from Paris for the occasion. A lady from the organisation, Agnès, is there too, and Jean Pierre drives us up, up into the mountains to visit the château where we will sketch and teach tomorrow. Jean Pierre knows the roads very well and the twists and turns make me glad I am beside him in the front.
Château Tournoël is a medieval castle perched high upon a hill, with views like those you would see from the top of a mountain, which it is, after all. Claude Aguttes, a well-known auctioneer, bought it some twenty years ago. “I saw the ‘for sale’ announcement one Saturday evening on the cheese course,” he tells us, “and by dessert I decided to buy it. My wife was okay with that, and I signed the contract the following Monday.” He didn’t stop there, and bought more ruined castles. He made it his life’s mission to restore and renovate the castles: Tournoël, I think, is the most completed of them. M. Aguttes is tall and has white hair and strong bony features. He talks ninety to the dozen but his French, while fast, is very clear. He does not like visitors to step on seedlings of wild flowers in the castle courtyard, because he fosters a certain semi-wildness, and likes to have things as natural as possible. Spiral staircases in pale wide stone take you from the courtyard to the parapets, passing through room after room of four-poster beds, suits of armour, tapestries both real and trompe-l’oeil, an archive room lined with bookshelves of ancient, semi-decayed leather-bound books on one side of the room in stacks, and post-restoration, in neat rows on another. There are dark, ancient kitchens straight from a 17th-century still life full of dusty brass goblets, enormous copper pots and boar-roasting spits with sunlight filtering gently through cobwebbed panes of glass catching dust motes and, just when you think your jaw can’t drop any further, a salle des curiosités at the very top. M. Aguttes has designed it to have the flavour of a nineteenth century museum, which is to say a riot of stuffed animals and natural objects, hanging from the ceiling, on the walls, perched on the mantelpiece of a vast stone fireplace. Stuffed crocodiles, snakes, whales, spiders, insects, parrots…if it flies, swims, runs or in fact stays still long enough to be killed and stuffed, chances are it’s there. It takes your breath away. You can’t process it. “I have been collecting curiosities like the ones you see here since I was sixteen,” says M. Aguttes. I ask him if any of his grandchildren share his passion (he has 21 grandchildren, I think). “Tous,” he says, without hesitation. All of them. He tells us that he made them work in the museum as guides when they were very little, for pocket money, and that while they were shy at first, now they are confident, and proud to show off their knowledge.
Agnès asks M. Aguttes who is the architect. “I am,” says M. Aguttes. “I got so fed up with all the messing about I took things into my own hands.” This is a pattern: M. Aguttes is in charge of everything.
We are warned there are snakes outside the castle: cobras (not dangerous) and vipers (extremely venemous, especially now at the start of the season). I desperately hope to see one, and feel unafraid. On the steps down to the huge wooden entrance gate where we have come in, a plant is growing between cracks in the pavement. “See its furry leaves,” says M. Aguttes, “you can use that plant as toilet paper. But I can’t say that in front of any of the kids who visit or you can be sure they’ll take it and use it there and then.” Actually, what I think I hear is: “they will go to the bathroom there and then in it” – but surely I have misunderstood.
Friday 17th June
The next day we bring a party of 21 sketching students to the castle. Juliette and I split them into two groups and divide the various locations where we think they’d like to sketch between us. I start off the day in the castle courtyard and Juliette is in the entrance where pale pink roses grow up the wall – very Beauty and the Beast.
M. Aguttes appears with an enormous book, which he places on a table next to the courtyard entrance. It is the biggest book I have ever seen, bound in dark brown leather. “This is the guest book,” he says, “and I would like you all to make a contribution. It is two hundred years old. Whatever you write will then be added to the archives, where they will be kept safe for the the next hundred years and beyond. A drawing woud be nice. If you can’t do a drawing, a signature with a flourish will do nicely.” I like to start a workshop with a demo. On a normal day, this requires confidence, skill and complete clarity in what you would like the students to try. But this isn’t a normal day. M. Aguttes brings the enormous book over to me, places it on a table right in the middle of the courtyard which he has brought out for the occasion, and instructs me to paint my demo straight into the book. He disappears back into the castle. “Right then,” I say to the students. “I am to paint directly into the two hundred year old book, which has never before been written in. In front of you all. No pressure, then.” But I choose an easy subject – one of the vertical windows in front of me. It’s the ideal subject to teach the topic I’m presenting today, which is to paint in watercolour first and only add paint when many layers are down. The paper won’t take many layers – I guess watercolour paper wasn’t used for giant visitors’ books in 1822 – so I finish it in pencil to deepen the shadows. M. Aguttes is delighted. “You have sketched my favourite window!” he says. I am thrilled to hear that. He dashes over to it. I realise it’s a different window, and it’s the pencil I have added that makes it look a bit like the favourite window, which is much more weathered than the one I have drawn. I should smile and nod, but instead I correct M. Aguttes. He is disappointed and explains why he so greatly prefers the one I didn’t draw. Detail is everything to him – he is an auctioneer of fine objets d’art, after all – and the authenticity of the older window, and its beautiful weathering, mean a lot to him.
At the end of the day, half an hour before the end of the sessions, M. Aguttes takes all the sketchers on a tour through the castle. He is justifiably proud of his efforts. “Finding the energy to do all these restorations just isn’t an issue for me,” he says, “it’s like my toy. I love it all.”
The sketch below is made a courtyard where it’s around 40o in the sun, so I soak a wide linen scarf under the cold tap in the bathroom and drape it over my head like a tent of cool. It works a treat, but the scarf is dry in about fifteen minutes. You can see the feral flowers that M. Aguttes loves so much: during the afternoon a sketcher, despite the proprietor’s seriously-issued warnings, deposits a bag on a small flower, and is unfortunate enough to be caught. “There’s a fine for that,” says M. Aguttes, “it’s a medieval fine, and it consists of a round metal ball embedded with spikes, on a chain, in turn attached to a rod. I will clock you over the head with it if you insist on stepping on the flowers.” I too, transgress briefly, but M. Aguttes seems to be less inclined to whallop me with a weapon of medieval torture.
That evening, I join Tazab and a few sketching buddies for a drink. You can’t tell from the sketch that we are in Place de la Victoire, which is thronging with people. What you can tell, however, is that I have begun to sketch the sketchers at our table – everyone is at it – and that I chicken out: look at the two light brown stains on the page. That’s where I start to paint shapes and immediately wash them away. I just can’t sketch faces of near-strangers up close – I don’t have the courage.
Instead I sketch the trio a little further away from us. I get the position of the leg of the man with his back to us badly wrong. “No you haven’t,” says a student the next day, “he’s just resting his wooden leg under the table.”
Saturday 18th June
My class and I are going to sketch people sitting at a café. We go to a café in Place de la Victoire, which is lined with cafés on either side. After explaining to the group what I would like them to do, I start to sketch a trio of patrons beside us. I hope to sketch them, then explain to the group how I have tackled each of the challenges. But I overestimate the sense of hurry the gentlemen have, and they remain seated for much longer than I anticipate. I can’t very well say to the group, “You’ll notice Monsieur on the left is thinning on top. Note how I allow the sun to catch this shiny place on his bald pate.”
The group make beautiful sketches and I am reminded that drawing people is one of the most wonderful ways to pass a couple of hours. Feel like you’ve no friends? Sketch in a café. Genuinely have no friends? Same. You won’t dwell on this when you are trying to decide how best to portray, for example, sunight bouncing off a balding head.
I add trees for depth of field and a bottle of Perrier to pick up the green. I feel disproportionately pleased with myself for showing the drinking straw in all its glorious reftraction.
In the afternoon we head to the park to capture shadows on people as they sit on the grass. This is the theme of the workshop I have proposed, but I have not reckoned with no one at all sitting in the sun. It’s now 42o and the shade is exacly where everyone wants to be. Instead, I tell the students to spend time looking at people walking past, how the light and shadow plays across their bodies, and to draw the humans sitting around as they find them. That is urban sketching: your best-laid plans often change at the last minute, whether teaching or just sketching for another reason.
Just before the afternoon session draws to a close, I draw the water jets in the fountain for the class, and explain a really good way to portray them using a white gel pen. I think they value the tips I share.
Evening arrives and it’s time to relax in the Bon Pasteur, whatever that is – I only caught the name and nothing else. French is funny that way: sometimes there’s a “le” in front which throws you because there may not be one in the equivalent situation in English. Anyway, it’s the HQ of the whole sketching event. There are nibbles and music laid on and it’s good to relax. I decide to draw the musicians: I am at a loss since I am slightly out of sorts (I have no idea why) and don’t know who to talk to. But sketching is the perfect solution when you’re feeling a little wrong-footed. As always…you forget about all that nonsense when you’re struggling to see your subject clearly. Then a little girl, also sketching the musicians, keeps blocking my view and my mouth twists into an angry pink line. This is unfortunately caught on camera. Somehow I manage to capture the essence and likeness of the musicians. Before I add each figure I feel sure I will mess up the whole drawing. But it doesn’t get messed up, and in the end the colours in my sketch are really beautiful together. This is an accident. The girl on the right is as beautiful as the day is long and has the voice of an angel. She never stays in one spot long enough to be drawn. “If I were her,” I say to someone, “I would be conscious that the place is hopping with artists and I would keep still.” I don’t add that if I looked like that I would not move, as a gift to Art in general. The music is great and the atmosphere is wonderful. The band is called The Bluegrass Social Club and they’re exactly right.
I am to spend the night at a location much closer to the following day’s workshop, and so I go back to the mountain chalet of Pierrette, the Directrice of the event. She lives with her adorable little Cairn terrier, Gaspar, in a wooden log-cabin type house surrounded by trees. It’s heaven to sit and eat supper on Pierrette’s terrace, the temperature a full ten degrees lower here, in the much more comfortable high twenties, the wind in the trees roaring all around us. I am back in my childhood home in the Wicklow Mountains. I have not touched a drop of alcohol since my admission to hospital in April, but a glass of rosé on Pierrette’s terrace is exactly what the doctor ordered (well, one of them: the other said never to drink again, but the one who said I could is my consultant so I’m with her). The sky is golden when we sit on the terrace and soon turns dark. I plan to have a mountain chalet in the Auvergne like Pierrette’s someday. The wind roars more loudly and we sleep like the dead.
Sunday 19th June
The last sketching session takes place in Vulcania, a sort of theme-park-stroke-educational experience. I am uninspired by the park itself and find a calm copse to sketch with my students. Once again, the idea is to make shapes in watercolour first, followed by lines with pen, if so desired. The students tell me it wouldn’t be unheard of for boars to crash their way through the trees. “If they should appear,” says one, “get out of its way.” Still…I live to encounter wildlife in its natural habitat (apart from rats and mice, whom I wish never to encounter).
The last session of the festival over, a few of us retire to Pierrette’s for lunch under the trees. We are joined by Tazab, Fabien Denoel from Belgium and Juliette Plisson from Paris. After lunch we decide to make the most of the sun and drive in Tazab’s bright green 2CV (built in 1967) to find a waterfall and a river for a swim. Tazab rolls down the roof and we beetle along with nothing but blue sky and blissful sun on our heads. We find a river and manage – just about – to find pools deep enough to immerse our bodies. I put my head back and think of centuries of Frenchmen before me swimming in that very river. Afterwards we sit on the bank and draw. Peace descends. Once my husband referred to us sketchers as “a barrel of laughs” because we are silent when we draw together. I have been self-conscious about not being much craic ever since that day. Today on the bank of the river I realise he is wrong: there is little in the way of mirth as we sketch together, but the peace between us is deep, profound, the camaraderie a beautiful thing. Left to right: Juliette, Tazab, Fabien.
On the way home the fields have been newly cut for hay and kites circle overhead, silhouetted against the sun, hunting the little animals suddenly exposed. Tazab sings a Cuban song I love. He has a gorgeous voice, pitch perfect, and when I make a reel on Instagram with the little footage I have (my phone’s battery is woeful, and was almost dead that afternoon) I use that song as a soundtrack. Those few seconds of film will forever hold a special place in my heart.
Monday 20th June
I fly home today. I lie around all morning in the heat, meaning to sketch but in the end doing nothing. Jean Pierre and his wife Anne-Marie, Tazab’s mother, take me for a farewell drink. Jean Pierre buys me a huge glass of some kind of beer that’s just too delicious, and whether it’s the beer or just me – I suspect the latter – I am garrulous and talk far too much. Maybe I should listen to the other doctor and take it easy on the drink after all. I hope my hosts don’t mind too much. I am very sorry to leave them, having become extremely fond of my new French friends. The hospitality I have been shown from the very fist day has been really touching. I will be back.