Release your inner Columbus... in confinement

Thought you couldn't travel while locked-down due to Covid-19 - think again... Find out how to take part in a Connexion 'travelogue' contest that is ideal for the confinement period...

25 March 2020
By Michael Delahaye

Chance to win great French-themed prizes from the Connexion shop (see more below) - and to have your writing published in The Connexion 

What? A travelogue? Now, of all times - when we’re meant to be staying home and not move a metre without a box-ticked attestation?

Well, hold that thought because not only is this is not a travelogue as we know it, it’s one with a fascinating historical precedent…

Over two centuries ago, Xavier de Maistre, an aristocrat born in what is today the department of Savoie in south-east France, got involved in a duel. As a result, he was put under house arrest for forty-two days. But rather than sit and sulk, he decided to go on a six-week excursion… around his room.

The resulting book, published in 1794, was titled Voyage autour de ma chambre.

What de Maistre recognised – and never was there a more pertinent lesson for us today – is that confinement can be a form of freedom. Wandering around his living quarters (at one point he dons his travelling jacket), he encounters furniture, pictures and knick-knacks which trigger his memory and allow his imagination to roam.

His imprisoners, he realises, have actually done him a favour.

“They have forbidden me to go at large in a city, a mere speck, and have left open to me the whole universe, in which immensity and eternity obey me…”.

And so he embarks on a radically scaled-down Grand Tour, one that will be both cheap and relatively risk-free, while also allowing an infinitely flexible itinerary: “My room lies east and west and, if you keep very close to the wall, forms a parallelogram of thirty-six steps round.

“My journey will, however, be longer than this; for I shall traverse my room up and down and across, without rule or plan.

“From my table I go towards a picture which is placed in a corner; thence I set out in an oblique direction for the door; and then, although on starting I had intended to return to my table, yet, if I chance to fall in with my armchair on the way, I at once, and most unceremoniously, take up my quarters therein.” (Coincidentally, as I write, a friend has emailed me her ‘Travel Schedule for April/May’: the floor-plan of her house with directional arrows.)

De Maistre’s ‘voyage’ is an exercise in seeing the familiar in a fresh light, a re-appreciation of all those domestic objects, big and small, with which we have chosen to surround ourselves but which, passing them every day, we typically take for granted. They may be things which evoke memories of a time and place (remember Proust’s petites madeleines?), or they may just give us a feeling of bien-être.

As de Maistre travels his room, commenting in turn on furniture, paintings, engravings and books, he is given to the sort of metaphysical musings which travel often prompts.

Looking at his bed, painted pink and white with two mattresses, he realizes that, more than just a board and bedhead, it is a stage for the three-act performance of our lives: “A bed sees us born, it sees us die… It is the ever-changing scene upon which the human race play by turns engaging dramas, laughable farces, and fearful tragedies. It is a cradle decked with flowers, a throne of love, a sepulchre…”

One of his keenest, most painful, observations is reserved for a withered rose, gathering dust on a shelf but originally intended as a gift for his mistress: “It is a flower of last year’s carnival. I gathered it myself in the botanical garden and in the evening, an hour before the ball was to begin, I bore it, full of hope, and agreeably excited, to Madame de Hautcastel, for her acceptance.

“She took it, and without looking at it or me, placed it upon her toilette-table… She was so fully occupied looking at herself, her attention so totally absorbed by the ribbons, gauzes, and all sort of finery that lay in heaps before her, that I did not get any sign of recognition.”

Some 230 years on, here we now are, like de Maistre, facing the prospect of weeks, maybe months, cooped up in our house or apartment and wondering how we’ll stop ourselves – and those with us – climbing up the walls.

Hence the challenge: to write your own ‘Voyage round my room’.

Look up and around… Everything has a story.

Dominating the room is perhaps that old cast-iron Godin stove, with its chipped enamel, which the previous owner wanted to rip out but which you insisted on keeping and which, after a century of faithful service, has gone on to give another decade’s worth….

Then, on the wall to its left is that risqué drawing done by an artist friend, the one you sometimes take down when expecting first-time guests... Or maybe the photo of a loved one, human or pet, since departed.

And there on the book-shelf at the far end of the room is (I admit, a personal example) that late-19th century soda bottle with what looks like a marble in its neck… the one you got for €15 at a local vide-greniers, bearing - by pure fluke - the name of your French village but which, when turned upside down, revealed it had been ‘Fabriqué en Angleterre’…

Few survived because kids used to smash them to get at the marble.

You get the idea.

De Maistre’s book is available on the Internet, free, in either the original French or English translation (details below). You don’t have to read it; this is not homework…

As for the rules, they are few and relaxed…

Your travelogue can focus on a single room, your general living-area, or the entire house. However we’re drawing the line at the garden, although views, sounds and smells through windows are permissible.

It should be 1,000 words maximum – the length of this article. Photos? They are not essential but, if relevant, please send ones of good quality.

Those travelogues judged the best will be published online and in the newspaper. 

Bonne Chance… and Bon Voyage!

Deadline: Midnight Tuesday March 31 (end of original confinement period in France). Entries of 500-1,000 words, by email (with photos if you have them) to news@connexionfrance.com.

Entry must be your original work 

Editor's decision is final

Prize: A French-themed chef's apron and three French themed tea-towels + your work published in The Connexion

Links for de Maistre's book: Voyage autour de ma chambre (Project Gutenberg); A journey round my room, translated by Henry Attwell

PHOTO CREDIT: Soda bottle and base, © Michael Delahaye; engraving of Xavier de Maistre by Cyprien Jacquemin

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