DERNIER MOT - Facteur Cheval
Ever since our trip to "Le Palais Idéal du Facteur Cheval"*, I don't have to look further than the Drôme for inspiration.
Facteur Cheval was a postman on a mission: he wanted to build an exotic marvel in his back garden; a palace of dreams, visions and poetry; a fairy's house full of religion, philosophy and psychology.
But he was just a postman with a backbreaking job and no money. He wasn't a builder, a stonemason or an architect. He had no knowledge or training. Worse, no-one was interested in his dream. His family and friends thought he was crazy.
Nothing daunted, the postman made little piles of rock as he trudged across the hills on his rounds and in the afternoon once he'd delivered all his letters, he retraced his steps with a rucksack so he could collect his stones and take them home.
Gradually, between 1879 and 1912 he built his palace, incorporating scenes from the postcards he delivered. An Indian Temple, a Swiss Chalet... windows, balconies, twisting stairways, secret tunnels, battlements, waterfalls, temples, he built them all into his dream place, and decorated the whole thing with animals and palm tress, angels and dishes of fruit, shells, stones and dozens of little mottos.
"To reach your goal you have to be stubborn" he chiselled. "Life without a goal is a chimera", and "Here the dream becomes reality".
The villagers laughed harder and harder. They thought he was absolutely nuts. Even his family merely shrugged and, when he died in 1924, his marvellous creation was abandoned. Overgrown with nettles and brambles, the stones began to crumble and decay. It wasn't until 1969 that the place was officially recognised as an artwork, and even then most people insisted that it was no more than the meaningless ravings of a disordered mind.
Nevertheless it passed into the hands of the local council. Since when, Facteur Cheval's palace has been restored and has become such a big all-year round tourist attraction that Hauterives has had to construct a huge car park just outside the village, and the narrow streets leading to Facteur Cheval's palace are lined with tourist shops, cafés and restaurants.
Needless to say however, even today a sizeable proportion of the visitors go there simply to gawp and laugh at the eccentricity of a mad postman who was deluded enough to feel that he had something to say about life.
But I'm strangely drawn to the Potty Postie. When we visited the palace, I insisted on buying a large photograph of his palace inscribed with one of his messages:
"J'ai cherché, j'ai trouvé
Quarante ans j'ai pioché
Pour faire jaillir du terre ce Palais de Fée
Mon corps a tout bravé
Le temps, la critique, et les années."
A rough translation is: "I searched, I found. For forty years I toiled, To make this fairy's palace spring from the earth. My body has borne everything: the weather, the criticism and the years."
But the bit I like best is "I searched, I found." I feel the postman is talking directly to me. You might remember that my slouchy cardigan went missing at last summer's fête. You might even remember my extended search for it. Yes, in the teeth of Cynical Scoffing from a Certain Person, I sought my cardigan high and low, and lo! after months and months, someone saw the notice I'd pinned to the tree and realised that the strange garment lurking in their car was in fact my cardi-gone.
Except that now it's a cardi-back. My cardigan has been duly returned. Perhaps it didn't take 40 years, but nevertheless the episode serves as a lesson in persistence.
I feel the Facteur Cheval would be proud.
*The Imaginary Palace of Postman Cheval. (See www.facteurcheval.com)
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