Fifty Shades of Greek Goddess.

A marble lady nonchalantly strutting her stuff (and showing her butt) for the public in Nîmes, France.

A marble lady nonchalantly strutting her stuff (and showing her butt) for the public in Nîmes, France.

It was a normal evening in the Mars family household on Mount Olympus. The twins were fighting on the floor as Rhea Silvia reached for the bottle of grappa and topped up her glass.

“For the love of Venus, put that down, boys. What a pair of animals; anyone would think you’d been brought up by wolves… No, Rommy darling, it’s not a cheese slicer. It’s called a lyre, and it’s a present from Aunty Aphrodite. Put it down, please – she’ll be harping on about it for years if you break it”.

“Lyre, lyre, pants on fire!” The twins dissolved into hysterical laughter. Rhea rolled her eyeballs and downed her glass in three large gulps. Wiping her mouth on her forearm, she thought back to the romantic pre-partum era. It had seemed a good idea at the time to seduce the God of War, but she had suddenly woken up to the hard reality of life in a villa with six snotty toddlers and an award-winning muffin top, only to discover that Mars had a worrying penchant for going into battle wearing her rara skirts.

Her thoughts were interrupted by the sound of a deep, virile voice booming “Hi, honey, I’m home!” and the sound of the front door slamming shut. Rhea Silvia languidly draped her naked body across the sofa and set her features in what she hoped to be a sultry pout. “Gerroff! Daddy’s home!” she hissed through clenched teeth as she tried to shake off the two whining, naked infants fastened to her ankles.

Mars stomped across the carpet, his armour glistening in the light of the lava lamp, and threw his sword on the sofa. “By Jupiter, what a day!” His eyes roved over her feminine curves, surveying the galb of her calves, her plump thighs and dimpled rear before hungrily devouring the sight of the flab riding sidecar on her hips and finally coming to rest on her generous belly roll. The corners of his mouth twitched into a smirk. “Didn’t have time to get dressed this morning, then?” he enquired, eyebrows arched in mock surprise. Rhea ran a hand slowly through her hair and peered demurely out from behind her fringe. “Is that a Mars Bar in your pocket, or are you pleased to see me?” she murmured as he approached.

You may have guessed from the above text that MM has been wandering around a museum looking at the antique equivalent of eye candy again. I am a sucker for museums and art galleries, and am particularly fond of mummies, paintings and sculpted marble bottoms. Whilst bespectacled art boffins strike poses with notebooks and reverentially peruse the paintings for unique perspectives, technical brush strokes and ingenuous lighting techniques, MM is quietly writing alternative titles and scenarios in her head for every work of art she sees. The tale above is one such example – incidentally, Rhea Silvia’s real story turned out to be much sadder than mine. Here is the painting that inspired MM’s ‘Fifty Shades of Greek Goddess », actually called « Le Retour de Mars » by Nicolas-René Jollain, (1732-1804), and found at the Musée des Beaux Arts in Nîmes.

A very bad photo of "Le retour de Mars" by Nicolas-René Jollain.

A very bad photo of “Le retour de Mars” by Nicolas-René Jollain.

When I see paintings of women, I am struck by the candid and honest portrayal of the female physique, and by the models’ evident pride to be the way mother nature intended them to be, rather than the cocktail-stick morphology many women try to attain today through draconian diets and exercise plans. These paintings graced the walls of men and women who spent hours admiring what they perceived as opulent beauty. What would they have made of the photo-shopped, latex knicker-toting toothpicks in the Pirelli calendar? Or the miserable, emaciated models that mince down the designer catwalk as makeshift human coathangers for clothing, applauded by rows of high-society fashionistas who can spend a fortune attempting to look like they’ve never eaten a decent meal in their lives? The women staring out of those paintings are calm and proud of their curves, yet many women today look in the mirror and heave a sigh of frustration when they see the same thing. Curves used to be a sign of wealth, health and abundance of food, yet today, more means less, and many of our female role models are no more than skin and bones as they throw money into cellulite treatment, liposuction and miracle diets.

I made this realisation before Christmas, when my muffin top suddenly mutated and morphed into something similar to Mrs Mars’ belly. In what appears to be an overnight putsch, Muffin Top was superceded by a new, terrible enemy: Sinister Soufflé, the dark and dangerous lardlord of the middle-aged darknesses, who had risen overnight and was waiting for me the next morning, unapologetically drooping over the top of my pyjamas like a rabid blancmange.

Yup, this would be it. Muffin top has mutated into Sinister Soufflé.  Photo source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AMaker_Faire_San_Mateo_2008_0022.JPG

Yup, this would be it. Muffin top has mutated into Sinister Soufflé.
Photo credit: Dvortygirl. http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AMaker_Faire_San_Mateo_2008_0022.JPG

Sinister Soufflé’s evil counterpart, Tefla the scales, had been silenced many months earlier by a dead battery. Her last attempts to charm me into replacing it were touching – every time I stepped onto her glass surface, she flashed up a chirpy « Lo », which I immediately interpreted as meaning that that my weight was nothing worry about. Since then she had been gathering dust below the laundry basket.

Tefla was kitted out with a new battery, and as I looked at the double zero awaiting me, the pit of my stomach reacted just like it does at the sight of the online banking screen after Christmas. You know you have to do it, but you also know you’re going to feel awful.

I will not go into the facts and figures; suffice to say that Tefla and a tape measure confirmed that I had far too much flab. After having exhausted all the possible excuses, ranging from food allergies to being possessed by evil spirits intent on avenging an unknown enemy I had drunk under the table in a previous life, I was left with the conclusion that I had noone and nothing to blame but myself.

That was when I stopped and wondered what was going on beneath the roll of belly fat. Mrs Mars may have been curvaceous and opulent, but she was also happily oblivious to the mecanics going on below her skin, and probably thought that Gluteus Maximus was no more than a legionary with a huge appetite. Pinching Sinister Soufflé, I imagined Larry the liver, who gritted his teeth and processed my lorryload of peanuts and generous serving of wine every evening without fail, and Marcel the Muscle, who was softening up by the minute from lack of exercise. Imagining my blood swooshing through veins that were perhaps slowly clogging up with cholesterol, I realised that what was important wasn’t getting rid of the muffin top, but simply being healthy. This provided a whole new slant on the body fat issue: Muffin Top and the sidekicks riding sidecar on my hips were a symptom, not the condition. That meant forgetting the word “diet”, which I negatively associate with deprivation and frustration, and focussing on getting healthy. If it (-and I-) worked out, I’d feel good (cue James Brown) and a trimmer figure would hopefully be a pleasant by-product.

If I wanted to stop the trend, I had to stop filling my face with rosé and peanuts every evening, and take more exercise – until ten weeks ago, the only crunch I approved of was wrapped in paper and could be polished off in five minutes flat. So I struck alcohol and the associated nibbles off my daily menu for a month, and added a daily 5K walk in the countryside with a delighted Smelly Dog and grumpy Mrs Playmo. Dry January became dry February, then dry March. My walks in the country are slowly becoming more jog than walk. That pair of jeans I had kept at the back of the cupboard “just in case” is no longer too small, and Tefla has just confirmed an eleven pound loss. Most importantly, I feel good (na-na-na-na-na-na-nah). Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to find a clean toga and a lyre before PF rolls in from work.

Advertisements

Tilting at the windmills of inhumanity.

P.F’s grandmother, Marguerite, would have been 105 today. She passed away in 2010 at the grand old age of 102, and was a very special person for me and my family. Today’s post describes one of the reasons she was so unique.

Human existence is short and insignificant in relation to the universe surrounding us, and we are relatively anonymous as we all follow our individual paths, running around in circles like ants. Often, our paths cross, and when this happens each of us can unknowingly mark the existence of someone, somewhere, and stay with that person forever. Some people leave an indelible imprint which goes much further, particularly when a fortuitous encounter at a crucial moment has made an essential difference to their lives, with friendship taking root and growing in adverse conditions.

This is precisely what happened when three such paths – those of a couple named Pierre and Marguerite, and a young man called Jean-Philippe – crossed by chance in wartime Saint-Etienne.

Marguerite took this photograph in 1942. For anyone who picks it up, it’s just another old, black and white picture. But the ageing colours of a dog-eared photograph often hide the most beautiful stories, and this is one of them.

There is no-one better placed to tell this story than André, the little boy you see horsing around whilst his father and Mr Lévy pose for the family album. He is now 78 and still  horses around with his grandchildren, but without the fetching white shorts and hat.

The following text explains the story behind this photo. It was read by André in November last year at the Yad Vashem ceremony in Paris during which his parents were posthumously named “Righteous Among the Nations“. He admits that he was shaky and emotional, and I can understand why.

“My father, Pierre, was a non-commissioned officer in the Avignon 7th Engineer Regiment at the beginning of the 1930’s. He met Marguerite in Bédarrides, and they married in May 1934. He went to the Versailles military administrative school for officers, which was transferred to Nantes in 1940. When he finished his training he was assigned to the Army Service Corps in St Etienne as second lieutenant.

Jean-Philippe Lévy was a young law graduate who taught at Lyon Faculty of Law. He was called up in 1939 as a reserve officer then posted to the St Etienne Army Service Corps after the June armistice. It is at this moment that his path crossed my father’s.

The Statute on Jews issued in October 1940 meant that Mr Lévy could no longer work as a civil servant. He lost his job, and lived from a meagre income composed of the royalties from his earlier legal publications and small salaries earned from precarious work contracts.

I was a small boy at that time, and the memories I have of him are those of a man to whom I could ask all kinds of questions. During our walks in the countryside, my questions concerned things like flora, fauna and the colour of the sky. At home, I asked him about my electric train circuit and mechanics: how did it all work? I was systematically provided with the answers. Although many of his explanations were way over my head, I did understand one thing: Mr Lévy was a scholar. When I asked my parents questions that they found difficult or embarrassing, their answer was inevitably:  “Ask Mr Lévy“!

We lived on the fifth floor at 56, rue du 11 novembre, right opposite the Rullières army barracks. From the balcony I had a bird’s-eye view of the barracks courtyard, and from 1942 onwards, the Nazi flag was hoisted and flew in its centre. I was fascinated by the comings and goings of troops and strange vehicles, and continued to assail Mr Lévy with my endless questions ….

From that time onwards, Mr Lévy only came to our home for dinner. Sometimes he had to stay the night with us when there were curfews, and came down to the cellar with us when the industrial suburbs of St-Etienne were bombed. I remember the comments my mother made in private about Mr Lévy’s appearance and his appetite. It was obvious that some days he didn’t always get enough to eat, and his clothes were in a pitiful state. My mother repaired his shirts, sewing the buttons back on and turning back the collars; it was common at the time.

Mr Lévy left for Toulouse at the end of 1943. He had found a job there in a publishing company, using false documents in my father’s name.

When the war was over, I asked him how he had felt when he walked to our home at night,  passing just a few feet from the soldiers at the entrance to the barracks. He replied that it wasn’t so much the German soldiers that he feared, but the militia and the Gestapo….. It must have taken some courage to walk by…….

At my niece’s wedding in Paris in 2001, my son Pierre was sitting beside me and asked me the name of the part of the chancel which is above the altar.  I didn’t know, and I replied without blinking: “Ask Mr Lévy“. Mr Lévy, sitting on Pierre’s left, answered without a second’s hesitation: “It’s called a rood screen“. Mr Lévy was 90 years old.

André at the Yad Vashem ceremony.

André at the Yad Vashem ceremony in 2012.

Post scriptum:

On Marguerite’s 100th birthday in 2008, a quiet gentleman had pride of place beside her at the head of the table. She introduced him to me as “a very good friend from St-Etienne”. I was perplexed: the complicity communicated in the look they exchanged at that moment betrayed that they were linked by something far deeper. She never talked about the conditions in which they met, and I think it is because first and foremost, Mr Lévy was her friend, and supporting him in a difficult time had been a gesture like any other that didn’t deserve any superfluous attention.

Yet the refusal of these three friends to accept the injustice imposed on them was far from being an isolated event: the same thing happened again and again throughout this dark period of history. These often unwilling and unprepared everyday heroes showed that you can tilt at windmills and win the battle, if you listen to your instinct and believe in your goal like the three friends you have just discovered.

My children will talk to their own children about Grande Mamie Marguerite one day. They are growing up in a world where atrocities still continue, and mankind continues to judge his fellow-man on the wrong criteria. I hope that the future generations of Pierre, Marguerite and Jean-Philippe’s families will never need the helping hand that linked their families, but that they will be ready and willing to stretch out their hand to help if it is ever necessary, with the same spontaneity and humanity. Happy birthday, Mamie. 

T_037

Marguerite and Mr Lévy on Marguerite’s 100th birthday in 2008, nearly 70 years after they first met.