In 1924, not long after the death of her mother, a fresh faced girl of nineteen years named Cecilia set off from England on what must have been an amazing journey, one that took her across France to the sunny Mediterranean city of Montpellier. She went to join her half-brother who, at some 17 years older than her, was recovering from injuries sustained from his work as an interpreter during the First World War and working as a teacher…
Some 90 years after that long and thrilling train journey, I got a chance recently to retrace her steps and to try and understand a little of the girl that I knew in the 1980s, when as a retired but formidable school mistress, there was little that I saw of that bright young thing remaining. I wonder if she would recognise Montpellier now.
I didn’t have the benefit of arriving in Montpellier by rail and can only imagine how extraordinarily exotic the countryside must have seemed as the train slowly wound its way through the rugged Mediterranean hills and the fragrant vegetation which is the Garrigue. But I wonder what she thought as the atmosphere in the dusty carriage slowly got hotter and who was sitting next to her as the long, tiring journey finally came to an end.
I have to confess to being a little disappointed that the current massive station renovation project has rendered both the building and immediate vicinity into something resembling the future not the past. It made it difficult to imagine how excited she must have been when her twinkling pale blue eyes first spotted her brother waiting on the platform.
But turn north from the station and start walking up the Rue de Maguelone towards the Place de la Comedie and suddenly it hits you just how mind-blowingly stylish and exciting Montpellier must have seemed to this little girl from Kent, with its Parisian style, eighteenth century architecture, towering palm trees swaying in the hot southern wind and shimmering streets.
I didn’t have much time to explore and I don’t know that much about Cecilia’s time here but as I struggle to get to grips with the conjugation of some very basic French verbs, I do know that Cecilia studied at the Université de Montpellier and the École de Commerce. Within a year of her arrival she received a diploma in French Studies and a superior diploma which involved the oral and written examination of her “connaissance pratique de la langue francais, la grammaire historique, la littérature, l’histoire et la géographie de la France,” a knowledge that she carried with her, with devastatingly clarity for the rest of her life.
I also know that she lived near the aqueduct and loved to walk in the Peyrou, although always and only in the company of a chaperone. And as I wonder at the grandeur of Rue Foch with its expensive boutiques, I remember that legend has it, she used to send her beautiful dresses back to England to be cleaned. And although I can only guess if she ever visited the Hotel Oceania Le Métropole where I stayed, with its art deco interior, cool tiled floors, potted palms and beautiful old iron lift, it’s not difficult to imagine her twirling away on the dance floor there or running lightly down the stairs.
It must have been a time for love and she told me that she danced with the Crown Prince of what was then French Indo China who gave her a gold bracelet made for her by the court jeweller and a book of famous love poems, delightfully inscribed to her. We have them still. And as I mingled with the busy crowds as they pour out of the Opera House on a warm June evening, I could almost hear her laughter as she takes her brother’s arm, as they leave the theatre, where they had a private box.
The irony of the fact that my guide’s name was Cecil, didn’t escape me, nor the fact that in my own life, I’ve always felt a strong affinity with France. Because Cecilia in all her spirited loveliness was my grandmother, who did eventually return to the UK and settle down there but who, as it will never cease to amaze me, was part of that dizzyingly exciting time, which was the 1920s in the south of France.
Visiting Montpellier – an elegant and vibrant city full of surprises
Read about the French Riviera in the 1920s – made popular by wealthy Americans…