artichokeAppearances can be deceptive. The Maison des Mémoires (House of Memories) is a haunting name for nicely restored building in the center of Carcassonne, mixing industrial modern touches with ancient stones. A sun-drenched interior courtyard shows beyond the reception desk.

Why I never entered is a mystery. I love this sort of thing. But la Maison des Memoires is modest, at least from the street, and when I passed, I was usually in a hurry on my way to something else.

I finally visited. And it was a treat. An unexpected discovery of unexpected discoveries. How’s that for meta?

The building, at 53 rue de Verdun (entry is free), was the home of Joë Bousquet, a poet and author who hobnobbed with the surrealists. They came to him because he was unable to get out. He was paralyzed by a bullet to the spine in World War I at the age of 21.

CHAMBRE JOË BOUSQUET Photo de Daniel Depoix
With paintings by his artist friends, who included many Surrealists. Copyright Centre Joë Bousquet/Daniel Depoix. Used with permission.

Bousquet mostly stayed in the dim of his upstairs room, where he smoked opium to cope with the pain. Opium became popular in France at the turn of the last century, as sailors and military brought it back with them from Indochina. It became so popular that smoking it was outlawed in 1908. But Bousquet’s father was a doctor, who had legal access, and his circle of artistic friends supplemented his supply.

Tangent discovered in researching this: France is the biggest legal producer of opium poppies rich in codeine (which is one of the six naturally occurring opium alkaloids; morphine is the most important one for medicine).

DSC_0021 Mail
Another view. He lived by the light of a reading lamp, and the world came to him here. Copyright Centre Joë Bousquet/Daniel Depoix. Used with permission.

The ground floor has a reception area (entry is free), and upstairs are two rooms for visiting exhibits–a series of photographs about immigration when I visited–and two more rooms about Bousquet, with photos and his books. At the end of a small hallway, you can look into Bousquet’s bedroom, kept as he left it, with the shutters closed.

The exhibit rooms are stunning, exhibits notwithstanding. When the building was renovated, gorgeous painted ceiling beams were revealed. They were restored but not brightened or altered. The first room is kept dark, so it was hard to photograph without flash.

first ceiling 1
Ceilings in the first room, which date to 1570.

first ceiling 2The second room’s beams date to 1640 and are quite different. They would be stylish today. I would love them at home!second ceiling 2

second ceiling 1

second ceiling corner

wall
A matching square was on the opposite wall.

The rooms are arranged in the typical French disposition, with doors aligned for sight lines and air circulation. As you stand in the second room and look through the first to the hallway beyond, there’s a trompe d’oeil fresco that was discovered after a new staircase had been installed. The fresco was placed to give the impression of a pastoral view that continued on to the horizon.trompe d'oeilAnd then, get a load of this beauty below. This is no reflection on the Bousquet family, because Joë lived in two other houses on the same street before moving here. But sometimes you have to appreciate when decorators don’t do the “right” thing. Like when they slap something new right on top of the old stuff, instead of first removing the old.wallpaper full angleIn this case, the old stuff was Aubusson wallpaper, signed and dated: 1791. It originally had been a few feet away, at the end of a hallway, but was moved here, away from the window. Whoever had gotten sick of it so many years ago just left it there and covered it up.

wallpaper straight full
If this were in my house, I would put a really comfortable sofa facing it, and then stare at it all day.
border
Border detail. You can make out the seam in the paper. Perfectly matched.

Another tangent: the tapestries that had made Aubusson (and Gobelins and Beauvais) famous fell out of fashion, in part because they weren’t needed for insulation as homes were better heated and in part because the French Revolution (1789-1799) put a big dent in their clientele. So they started making wallpaper, which was coming into fashion. In fact, the first definition of tapisser today in French is to hang wallpaper. I love etymological connections.

wallpaper bottom half
Still chic, IMHO

Sadly for Bousquet, all these beauties had been hidden under plaster and discovered only during the renovation to create the museum. I can just imagine, having been there, done that: a bump against a wall sends a layer of plaster clattering down. In our case, we discovered not antique wallpaper but that the walls had been filled with straw. You never know what you will find.

After my second visit to la Maison des Memoires, I hit the library for some of Bousquet’s books. I wasn’t familiar with Bousquet, nor with his contemporaries, such as Andrew Gide and Paul Éluard. Another happy discovery. Here are a few passages translated:

The truth that we understand is but the image of that which inspires us.

You have presumed too much of the future and of luck. The time which should have brought you happiness is dead en route, and you fall again to the power of the shadows that follow you. But an unhoped-for rescue comes to you with your strengths, which you hadn’t imagined. Would you say that everything is lost because there’s only you to save yourself?

Don’t imitate reality, collaborate with it.

fragment
A fragment of the past.

Meanwhile, a call for help from a reader: what exactly are these scissors used for? They are 6.5 inches or 16 cm long. I was thinking for sewing, though they’re longer than my pretty sewing scissors and the blades are different. What do you say?Scissors 1

Scissors 2

Send your answers in the comments. And merci mille fois!

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30 thoughts on “You Never Know What You’ll Find

    1. Not surprising you couldn’t get info on the crop! I had wondered how fields of opium poppies could go undetected, figuring they were red (I think I saw something years ago about opium in Afghanistan and the photo showed red poppies). A field of white flowers would be striking but not as much as red ones. There’s a red field near us that stands out from miles away.

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  1. I look forward to your “musings” as they are so interesting. They give me a sense of the personal and the culture of your particular area of France. Thanks for this one, fascinating

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  2. I love the layers upon layers of history in Europe. The surface just has to scratched and something amazing is revealed. We don’t have layers….just a thin veneer.

    Ali

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  3. Thank you for posting my query and thank you all for your answers.
    I will try them with grapes when the season comes. No wonder they were in the cutlery drawer! Sylvine from Argentina

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  4. The scissors look like an antique embroiderie scissor. I have a reproduction similar pair. The short blades make it easy to snip threads. What a delightful visit you must have enjoyed!

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  5. What a fascinating post – i’ll have to look in when I’m next in Carcassonne!!! Thanks so much for sharing that! As for the scissors, my first hunch is for grape scissors, second would be embroidery, depending on how sharp they are.

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  6. We made a French dinner for old college friends the other night and they were going on about how much they loved their week stay in Carcassonne… I said wait!!! I know someone from there…and a little about the area due to her. It was a fun evening. My husband opened a Bordeaux that we brought back with us when we lived in Paris 16 years ago.

    Thanks for another beautiful post!

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  7. What a fascinating place. So much to beguile. A real treasure chest. If it was in my quartier I would simply be in there night and day, I think. Thank you – I just absolutely loved this and I can’t single out a favourite piece in such a delicious whole!

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  8. That bedroom is delicious. The saturated colors, the books, such a sense of being cosseted.

    You already know by now that those are grape scissors. They made me smile. My mother had antique grapes scissors, tucked away with other specialized old dining outils on the shelf of an 18th century cupboard.

    And those beams! Gorgeous.

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    1. It’s so sad that Bousquet was so young when he was paralyzed. His room isn’t big. But even though he shut himself in there for the most part, he remained engaged with the world.

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