Showing posts with label François Skyvington. Show all posts
Showing posts with label François Skyvington. Show all posts

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Paris wall

For centuries, an old-fashioned bank in Paris, the Crédit municipal, has enabled ordinary citizens to deposit valuable stuff such as jewelry and take out low-interest cash loans. Later, if and when clients get back onto their feet financially, they can return to the institution and buy back their deposited goods. After a certain time, if the stuff is not bought back, then the institution, in the time-honored traditions of pawnbrokers, auctions it off and makes a nice profit. So, everybody is happy… except maybe the ghosts of ancestors who see their precious family legacies being dilapidated by cash-strapped descendants.

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This kind of money-lending institution, referred to in Italian as a Monte de Pietà (Mount of piety), was invented in the 15th century by an Italian monk as a scheme designed to end the monopoly of usurers of the kind that would be stigmatized, a century later, by Shakespeare’s notoriously anti-Semitic portrait of Shylock.

The Italian expression has in fact been misunderstood. Monte de Pietà has nothing to do with mounts. It refers rather to an amount of cash that is offered, allegedly through piety, to people in need.

Since the eve of the French Revolution, the Parisian Mont de pieté has been located in the Marais quarter. Its ancient entrance still exists in the Rue des Blancs-Manteaux.

Meanwhile, the main entrance is located in the Rue des Francs-Bourgeois: the eastern continuation of the Rue Rambuteau, where I lived for many years.

I’ve walked past that door almost daily, for years. Well, I’ve just learnt that this ancient Parisian financial institution is about to be closed down, simply because (like many other old-fashioned social entities) it can’t adjust itself to the digital era. This is weird in a way, because it shouldn’t be too hard to invent an Internet business model for pawnbroking…

I come now to the subject of this blog post: the existence of an ancient wall around Paris. referred to in French as the Enceinte de Philippe Auguste [Wall of Philip II Augustus]. This protective wall around the French capital was erected as a reaction against threats from the nasty English monarch, my ancestor King John, who would be forced at sword-point to sign the Magna Carta on 15 June 1215. Here’s a plan of the wall dating from 1223:

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Its builder was the king of France, Philip II, commonly referred to in French as Philippe Auguste, primarily because he was born in August, and also because this nickname likened the monarch to a wise ruler of ancient Rome. Be that as it may, the French king appears to have been a nicer sort of a fellow than the abominable English monarch on the other side of the Channel.

Parenthetical comments: From a pragmatic viewpoint, the fact that King John was my 22-times-great-grandfather means little, if anything at all. His genetic contribution is diluted homeopathically today in a chromosomal soup stewed up from the gametes (reproductive cells) of countless other male and female ancestors. He was no more than a single member of the vast cohort of my medieval ancestors, whose number cannot even be vaguely estimated. Realizing that he’s one of my ancestors, I’ve nevertheless made an effort to know more about the man. Sadly, it’s almost impossible to find anything whatsoever of a noble nature in his profile. Consequently, it’s not surprising that no other English king has decided to call himself John.

Let’s get back to the Paris wall. Inside the domain of the Paris pawnbroking institution that is about to become extinct, there’s a fine fragment of the wall of Philippe Auguste.

Observing this tower, I was always impressed by the lovely pink-brick structure at the top… but what counts, in fact, is the relatively dull stone structure at the base, which is a perfectly intact fragment of the wall of Philippe Auguste.

Further to the west, we enconter the address of 16 rue Rambuteau, where Christine and I lived with our children Emmanuelle and François for many years. At the time, we didn’t think much about the fact that our apartment was situated upon the wall of Philippe Auguste. People had told us that this was the case, but this didn’t mean much in the context of our daily existence. In my personal photographic archives, I have countless images of our children on the balcony overlooking the nearby Hôtel de Saint Aignan, seen here:

Today, the elegantly-restored edifice has become (thanks to Jacques Chirac) the Museum of Jewish Art and History.

The balcony of our apartment was located in the upper left-hand corner of the above photo, where there seems to be a video camera. In the middle of the courtyard, there’s a huge statue of the extraordinary man who symbolized French anti-Semitism: Alfred Dreyfus. On the left of the courtyard, directly below our apartment, a stone façade with fake windows has been erected, solely for esthetic reasons, against the ancient wall of Philippe Auguste.

I often wonder what the ghost of the Colonel Dreyfus might think to be depicted here at a spot that I know so well, in the heart of Paris, where he looks out upon a panoramic façade of which the left-hand third, built against the wall of Philippe Auguste, is both archaic and totally false.

In any case, and above all, I'm overcome by a strange and wonderful feeling of warmth and pride every time I reflect upon the fact that our tiny Skyvington-Mafart family came into being here in the ancient inner heart of the fabulous City of Light. At the time, I didn't think that this might be any kind of achievement (maybe Christine did). But today, I realize that Emmanuelle and François grew up on the top of a legendary wall, in a fabulous Old World place that might even be thought of (by people like me, in any case) as the cultural centre of western civilization.

Friday, January 2, 2015

Rosalie’s duck

Jesus said, "I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from wise and intelligent people and have revealed them to children."                                                                                — Matthew 11:25
I’m convinced that, if ever the individual referred to as Jesus had existed, he might indeed have said something like that. That's to say, Jesus—himself a bright fellow—surely understood that there was great clear-sightedness, discernment and rationality in the regard of a child.

Back in 1977, when I was driving around Scotland with my children, visiting places that I planned to mention in my forthcoming tourist guide to Great Britain, my 8-year-old son François provided us with a wonderful example of childhood wisdom. We were sitting on the shores of Loch Ness, and talking inevitably about the legendary monster.

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François: “If ever the monster existed, down at the bottom of Loch Ness, it wouldn’t waste its time wondering whether or not we humans exist. So, why should we spend our time wondering whether or not the monster exists?” That was symmetrical reasoning of a high order.

A few years later on, at the Ruflet estate in Brittany, Christine was talking with the children about a serious family problem that had arisen. I don't recall the details, but it was quite complicated. No matter what solution was imagined, there was always a good reason why it wouldn’t work. So, everybody was moving around in circles, looking for some way of solving the problem. After a long pause in the discussion, young François voiced an unexpected opinion: “It’s like Rosalie’s duck.” 

Now, to understand that remark, you need to know that Rosalie was a rural lady (maybe a window by that time) who had spent her life in charge of the main farm at the Ruflet domain. For us, she was renowned for the excellent poultry she raised, which was constantly present on festive tables in Christine’s family context. And we must imagine that, in the midst of Rosalie’s chickens (with thighs like champion Breton cyclists), there was a duck.

Manya was rather angry to hear her brother’s remark. “François, here we are, talking about a serious family problem, which nobody seems to be able to solve. As soon as we think there’s an answer, it turns out to be wrong. Then we have to start looking for another possible answer. And stupidly, in the middle of our discussion, you start talking about Rosalie’s duck… which has nothing whatsoever to do with what we’re talking about.”

The reaction of François was simple but brilliant: “Manya, you’ve obviously never tried to catch Rosalie’s duck.” He went on to explain that he himself had often tried to catch Rosalie's duck. But, whenever he made an attempt to jump upon the bird, it vanished instantly to another spot. It was impossible to pin it down. And François had realized that this was the essence of the family problem that was being discussed.

In fact, Rosalie's duck was behaving like a run-of-the-mill quantum event. The animal was acting with the elusiveness of an electron. These days, I’ve got around to thinking that, in my forthcoming philosophical autobiography to be entitled We are Such Stuff, I may well use the expression Rosalie’s duck as the title of my chapter on the greatest metaphysical question ever asked (dixit Heidegger):

Why is there something rather than nothingness?

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Parable of the lamps

Another parable put he forth unto them, saying, The kingdom of heaven is like unto a great new light cast by the lamps of Led.

Then came to Jesus scribes and Pharisees, which were of Jerusalem, saying, There is incandescence throughout the land of Canaan. And the multitude in the great market of Superu look not upon the lamps of Led, but prefer still the iniquity of incandescence.

And the scribes and Pharisees did cause a law to be passed throughout the land which would forbid the sale of incandescence. The Son of man shall send forth his angels, and they shall gather out of his kingdom all things that offend, and the old lamps of incandescence. And shall cast them into a furnace of fire: there shall be wailing and smashing of glass. Then shall the righteous lamps of Led shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Who hath lamps to change, let him change them.

There was in Galilee a young man named Francis, who said unto himself, The old light of incandescence is sweet unto the eyes, whereas the lamp of Led is harsh. But soon there will be no longer the old light in the land. So went he into the market of Superu where he gathered up unto himself a great load of incandescent boxes of many shapes and colours, for many years to come.

And the young woman who did take the shekels of Francis said unto him, Take heed, for the jugs are old, but the wine in the jugs is new. But Francis did not understand her words.

In his house on the shores of Capernaum, Francis did start to open his incandescent boxes of many shapes and colours. But lo, within, there was no sweet incandescence, only the lamps of Led. And the children of Francis did say unto their father, You have been screwed like a lamp of Led.

Whereupon Francis did go unto Jesus and ask, Master, why do the many incandescent boxes from the market at Superu hold lamps of Led? And Jesus did answer, Ah man of little faith in the new light. The Holy Spirit moves in the market of Superu in mysterious ways. Dost thou know how many men it takes to change the old light into the lamp of Led? And Francis did not know, for he was full of iniquity.

And Jesus did answer with a cunning grin, It takes no man at all, for it is the work of my Father in heaven.

POST SCRIPTUM  Although the parable of the lamps speaks for itself, in the language (more or less) of our lovely King James Version of the Holy Bible, I’ve been told (by the hero of our parable, my son François Skyvington) that parishioners might fear that the scribe William has been consuming mind-distorting mushrooms. To set things straight, here is the authentic anecdote. Several years ago, my son heard that French authorities were adamant upon removing all the old incandescent light bulbs, and replacing them by led lamps, for economic reasons of power consumption and efficiency. For reasons that only my son might explain, he was somewhat disturbed by this change, for he felt that the old incandescent lamps, in spite of their technical and economic weaknesses, retained a certain charm and conviviality when compared with the new led lamps. Fearing that incandescent lamps were apparently an endangered species, François went into the local Super U store at Lanvollan and purchased a huge assortment (for a significant sum of money) of what he imagined to be the old-fashioned incandescent lamps (as indicated on the packaging), of all shapes and varieties. In that way, he was assured, no matter what happened, that he would not soon run out of incandescent light bulbs. When François informed the female cashier that he was happy to be able to stock up on the old products, he was so pleased with his purchase and proud of his perspicacity that he didn’t pay attention to her certain ironic regard. Back home, François found with amazement that, while the cardboard packaging seemed to indicate the presence of old incandescent bulbs, the actual products inside the packaging were all modern led lamps. Screwed like a light bulb!

Friday, November 21, 2014


In my house at Gamone, I’ve just assembled and installed two alarm panels like this:

The alarm on the left is a smoke detector, while that on the right detects lethal carbon monoxide gas. They both run on batteries.

I’ve installed one panel in the staircase, in the vicinity of my ground-floor wood-burning stove. The other panel is installed on a wall in the kitchen. These detectors are not expensive, and they’re easy to install. So, I’ll probably get around to installing other identical panels throughout the house.

My son François told me that he inadvertently tested his CO detector when cleaning the interior of the chimney pipe that evacuates smoke from his wood-burning stove. There were two 90-degree bends in his piping (which have since been eliminated thanks to a single vertical pipe from ground level to the roof), and it would appear that CO had collected between these bends. Consequently, as soon as François started to brush away the soot that had gathered in these bends, the CO floated down into his living room and set off the alarm.

François and I both felt that it would be reassuring if we were able to test our smoke detectors… without setting fire to our houses. At lunchtime today, I succeeded in doing just that, thanks to half-a-dozen barbecue sausages from my deep freezer. I cooked them on a flat iron pan of the kind used for making pancakes, heated by my gas range. Naturally, as the temperature rose, and the sausages sizzled, a bit of smoke escaped from the pan. Suddenly there was a piercing whistle, but I had no idea of its origin. Since I was also using an induction plate to cook vegetables to accompany the sausages, I had the crazy idea that the molecules in the induction system might be “resonating”  weirdly and catastrophically… and I half-expected something to explode. The whistle continued to shriek. Finally, I noticed that the smoke detector was also flashing a red lamp… and I realized what had happened. So, I rushed to the kitchen door and opened it to let out the smoke, which ended the whistle shrieks.

It was a successful and convincing test. Besides, I had the impression that the sausages and vegetables—which I ate on an outside coffee table, in the autumn sunshine, sharing tidbits with my dog Fitzroy (who had been just as disturbed by the alarm as I was)—tasted better than ever.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Pyrenean colors

In one of his recent TV documentaries, François Skyvington found himself in the middle of a wonderful world of colors in the Midi-Pyrénées region of south-west France. To start the ball rolling, he visited an amazing old laboratory that has preserved the ancient and secret know-how involved in using a local plant as a source of blue dye.

Wearing his trademark orange scarf, François gazed with fascination at the mysterious blue broth that was cooking in the cauldron.

Then a bee started to buzz in his bonnet. François wondered how his orange scarf might react to the Pyrenean blue dyestuff. No sooner said than done. He took of his keffiyeh and threw it into the vat.

I have the impression that François may have wondered, at that moment, whether he might have just made a foolish decision. As they say in the classics, curiosity can kill a cat. Maybe curiosity can destroy a keffiyeh, too…

At first, it looked as if no harm had been done.

But a minute later, the outcome was quite different. A change in color was taking place in real time before the startled eyes of my son.

Now attired in a blue scarf, François asked the lady if he might be able to put his moped in the vat of dye, so that its color would match the keffiyeh. But they all agreed that this might not be a good idea. So, François bid farewell to his newly-discovered blue world.

Happily, in the next scene, through the magic of movie-making, François had retrieved his original orange keffiyeh. Besides, he seemed to be moving around still on the same archaic moped. But can we be sure? Be that as it may, we then find our golden-helmeted hero wandering around in a field of sunflowers.

Next thing, he’s sipping a glass of freshly-pressed sunflower oil as if it were a delicious nectar… which, apparently, it is.

Things then get serious, as the dominant color changes from orange to red: of the kind that is supposed to infuriate bulls.

The local fellows told François that bulls see reds and oranges as if they were 50 shades of grey. But that seems hard to believe. They also explained that, if you happen to be confronted by a furious bull, the best thing is to simply jump out of the way.

And François was promptly invited to take part in a 5-minute crash course on how to become a torero.

Courageous or foolhardy, he was prepared to prove that he had learnt his lessons well. That’s to say, sufficiently well to survive.

Apparently he didn't feel at all comfortable while awaiting the bull's charge. Olé!

As I’ve often said, riding around France on a two-wheeled vehicle such as a moped can be a dangerous business…

Friday, August 1, 2014

Moped Facebook

My son François Skyvington told me on the phone this morning that his moped road movies are currently being aired on the Arte channel at a rate that often rises to four 30-minute programmes a day. Apparently the producer has set up a Facebook page here.

The problem is that my son, like me, is not a regular Facebook user. So, the situation is likely to be a bit frustrating for people who might wish to communicate with my son through Facebook. On the other hand, I have the impression that, if you click around, this Facebook page offers you various extracts from the series.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Napoleonic cavalryman on moped

This week, the latest series of moped movies starring François Skyvington has been showing on the Arte channel. Sensing that they’ve created an exemplary TV style, with a finely-dosed blend of form and content, the production team has respected scrupulously the approach developed throughout their two previous seasons, which gave rise to a total of 40 half-hour documentaries (which are being aired by Arte on the same afternoons as the new series). The general idea is that François—wearing a yellow helmet and an orange scarf—continues to take advantage of his archaic orange moped to crawl around picturesque byways, where he meets up with all sorts of friendly and interesting individuals, generally in most spectacular places.

To fit half-a-dozen such encounters into a 30-minute documentary, and to maintain the smooth rhythm of each road show, the production people are obliged to condense events and to take constant shortcuts. Viewers are expected to accept the principle that François simply “runs into” all these fascinating people, places and situations. There is no time in the documentaries for didacticism or dreary explanations, which would of course be fatal for the harmony and entertainment value. Ordinary viewers are not likely to examine these moped documentaries with a view to planning their forthcoming family vacations. On the other hand, each programme comes across as an inducement to travel and an element of touristic motivation in the sense that TV viewers are brought in contact immediately with the essence of such-and-such a site and its people. François and his primitive old two-wheeled vehicle take us directly to the heart of the subject and put viewers in immediate contact with the spirit of place.

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The 5 programmes aired this week dealt with Corsica. Not surprisingly, the man on his moped soon met up with the world of Napoléon Bonaparte in Ajaccio. Down in the street in front of the house where the future emperor was born, François was received by an honor guard.

Images on the screen were then metamorphosed magically, as TV viewers stepped inside the splendid Salon napoléonien in the city hall of Ajaccio. The emperor's marble gaze did not appear to be unduly disturbed by the arrival of one of his cavalry officers on a moped.

As for the awestruck expression on the face of the cavalryman, it suggested that his mechanical steed rarely brought him into such prestigious settings.

He wondered whether it was appropriate that a humble moped man such as himself should be attired in such a fine outfit, and surrounded by vestiges of Corsican imperial splendour.

Why not? He would have time enough, later on, to get back to his faithful vehicle and his yellow helmet and orange scarf on the rural roads of France. For the moment, he could savour calmly this exceptional situation.

Besides, there was no time for dreaming. Much was happening out on the battlefields, and the cavalry officer was obliged to adopt a firm tone of persuasion when discussing certain life-and-death military matters with his senior commander.

It wasn’t long before François left this imperial setting, and the yellow helmet reappeared on the macadam of the rugged roads of Corsica.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

My son’s 3-day working holiday at Gamone

François Skyvington leads an extremely busy existence. Over the last few years, my son has been working almost non-stop on his 30-minute moped travel movies for TV. (The latest series will be aired on the Arte channel later on this year.) For the moment, he’s starting major building extensions to his house on the top of Brittany cliffs looking out over the English Channel. And he has also decided to create a high-quality diner-style restaurant alongside the main road between St-Brieuc and Paimpol. I therefore find it perfectly normal that François doesn’t necessarily have free time enabling him to drop down here to see me at Gamone. So, I was thrilled when he phoned me last week to say that he had decided to take the train from Guingamp to Valence for a 3-day stay. To get an idea of how long it was since the last time we had met up, you only need to know that, last Monday afternoon, François met my dog Fitzroy for the very first time.

In such circumstances, it goes without saying that I did not expect my son to spend any part of his precious holiday time in carrying out work around our house at Gamone. But I had not reckoned on the spontaneous desire of François to tackle all sorts of practical problems whose urgency he sensed immediately, as soon as he reached Gamone. First, it was a matter of reducing drastically the volume of the "bun" of branches (my son is preoccupied by BurgerTalk) on top of the pergola.

Finally, the 6 rose bushes composing the pergola looked like young Australian boys of my generation who had just emerged from a customary short-back-and-sides operation at the barber’s shop.

François then set about tidying up the Buxus sempervirens (European Boxwood) hedge that I planted long ago on the outer edge of my future rose garden.

François then set about pruning the various bushes of my rose garden.

He then tackled the huge task that consisted of removing all the wild vegetation (including lots of small trees) on the perimeter of my rose garden. You can detect the presence of this vegetation in the background of the above photos. To remove it, François used both my electric hedge-trimmer and my chainsaw. Thanks to my son's strenuous efforts, I can once again get a glimpse of the road that runs alongside Gamone Creek.

Finally, as if all that work were not enough, François drove the Renault Kangoo and trailer to a nearby quarry where we were able to gather up (manually) a stock of high-quality limestone slabs that will be an essential part of my future wood-fueled bread oven. Here you see François sitting on this nice little pile of stones, alongside the place where the oven will be built (this summer).

I was delighted to see that the relationship between my son and my dog was better than anything I might have hoped for. François was often amazed by Fitzroy’s serenity. Indeed, I like to imagine that my dog and I, through sharing constantly our experiences, are becoming similarly zen in parallel.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Longest European train ever

I suggest that you start the following video immediately. 

Like many people, I love to watch trains go past. I hope you share with me this passion. The merit of the above video is that the pleasure of watching this train go by is made to last for over a quarter of an hour. Your first view of the approaching train is a tiny white dot at the far end of the empty line on the left-hand side of the video. It only appears after you're about a minute and 20 seconds into the video. So stay calm, and wait. You'll recognize it as soon as it appears. Then the dot turns into a whitish blob, and the blob starts to get bigger and bigger. It's terribly exciting, but you've got to be patient.

When the train was in full view, I even had time to go downstairs and make myself a coffee… and, when I got back to my computer screen, the train was still going past. It’s the longest train in French railroad history, or something like that. That’s a great kind of a record, n’est-ce pas ?

I bet that strongmen are already contacting the French railway authorities, hoping to get into the famous Guinness book by showing that they can drag this train with their bare hands and arms over a distance of so many metres. That would be another great kind of a record.

Aussies are always going on about the length of their road trains on Outback roads.

But I reckon they wouldn’t get anywhere near the length of the French train.

Now, if ever you were bored, you don’t have to watch the video right up until the end. If you’re thinking of hitting the stop button, I can tell you what happens later on in the video. Nothing at all ! The train simply keeps on moving past.

POST SCRIPTUM: My son François Skyvington phoned to express certain doubts concerning this train video. In particular, he felt that neither the train nor the products being hauled appeared to be French. So, I’m inserting a few items of information that I discovered on the excellent websites of French TV and Challenge Nouvel Observateur.

The train seen in the video was 1.5 kilometres long and it weighed 4000 tons. As such, it was the longest train that has ever existed up until now in Europe. The experimental excursion whose departure is presented in the video took place on January 18, 2014. The departure was Lyon (Rhône) and the destination Nîmes (Gard). The train was composed by linking together two normal trains, each of a length of 750 metres and with its own pair of locomotives. (This kind of linkage is a standard operation in the case of TGV trains.) For the experimental run seen in the video, this linkage was carried out in a railroad freight zone named Sibelin, on the outskirts of Lyon.

In my title, I've replaced the adjective "French" by "European". The project, named Marathon, is not purely French, but European, guided by the European Commission and involving 16 financial partners. In the experimental train shown in the video, you may have noticed the presence of two French-made Alstom electric locomotives and two German-made Vossloh diesel locomotives. For this first experiment, as my observant son noticed, the rolling stock (wagons and goods) was indeed German, made available by the Kombiverkehr company.

In normal operational circumstances, train-watchers won’t have the luxury of spending a quarter of an hour admiring such a long train, because their cruising speed will be about 100 km/hour. At level crossings, drivers will therefore be held up for an extra 30 seconds. So, make the most of your opportunity to admire the above video. Viewing conditions won’t always be so leisurely once these trains become operational in a few years’ time.

Meanwhile, I thank my son for his keen observations and feedback.