Over the hill
When is a woman past her prime? In the twelfth century, Eleanor of Acquitaine was married and Queen of France at 15, released from her tumultuous marriage at age 20 after having travelled with the Crusaders as far as Jerusalem, remarried and Queen Consort of England at age 22, separated and head of an independent court in Poitiers at the age of 36, when she finally considered herself middle-aged. This did not stop her assisting her young sons in a revolt against their father, which caused her husband Henry II to send her into house arrest for the next 16 years, until his death, and three years after that she ruled England as Regent while her son Richard was off at the Crusades, raising his ransom and negotiating his release from captivity when he was imprisoned by the Holy Roman Emperor on his way back. After this son’s death she served her other son John, now king, as diplomat at the age of nearly 80.
In the fifteenth century, Margaret of Austria, also known as Marguerite de Bourgogne, was betrothed at the age of 3 to the Dauphin of France but jilted by him at the tender age of 11. No matter: at 16 she had married the heir to the throne of Spain, Juan, Prince of Asturias, although their passionate union lasted only six months before he suddenly died of a fever: at 20 she married the Duke of Savoy, another lively love-match but one where she also showed her ability to govern their domaines because her husband was not interested. This union too was cut short when Philibert died suddenly less than three years later. At 23 she thought her life was over and threw herself out of a window, but survived and went on to become Governor-General of the Netherlands, energetic in the interests of her nephew the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, until her death at the age of 50.
In the sixteenth century, Mary Stuart, Queen of Scotland at the age of six days, married to the Dauphin of France at 16, Queen Consort of France at 17, widowed at not yet 18, remarried and a mother at 23, widowed once more, remarried and arrested after an uprising, not yet 25, did see her life go downhill from then on. Kept a virtual prisoner by her cousin Elizabeth for almost 19 years, though not without passionate supporters, she finished on the scaffold by order of Elizabeth and was dead at the age of 44. Elizabeth, of course went on to be the world’s most powerful monarch until the age of almost 70. Let’s not even talk about Elizabeth II.
And yet. In the twentieth century, when I first came to France, they were still celebrating St Catherine’s day in offices and other workplaces: any woman of 25 who not yet found a husband was fêted with cakes and flowers, given an elaborately decorated hat and reminded that she had better get busy as time was running out. When I was 35 I asked a neighbour if she could join the school parents’ committee and she apologised, saying she was “too old and tired”; she was my age.
And in the US there began to appear here and there notices on the grass in front of middle-class houses, with balloon decorations and general signs of festivity, evidence that the woman of the house had reached the age of forty and was thus about to commence the downward path into ignominy and obscurity.
“Over the hill”. Who is to say when a woman is past her prime? Eleanor of Aquitaine presumably thought she was well past her youth when she went to Poitiers, but she continued a very active life, without her husbands, for twice as long after that. Margaret of Austria had finished her love life at 23 but her political life was just beginning, again more than doubling that age. Mary Stuart, though her happiness was over before she was 25, continued fighting until the end, was never without devoted admirers and is generally considered to have died tragically young. Most young Frenchwomen today are unmarried at 26, and although my teaching colleagues used to speak rather apologetically of themselves as “quadras”, most 40-50-year-olds nowadays still look and act young and dynamic, and have preserved their looks. Most educated women don’t begin to feel old until they are at least 70 or even 80. So I ask again, “over the hill” is 23? 35? 80?
For my part, I hope, when I reach 120, to be able to adopt the remark of Jeanne Calment at that age:
“I’m actually still a young girl. It’s just that I haven’t looked so good for the past seventy years.”
Over the hill
Just standing still
Is this graceful deer
I daren’t get to near
Not to cause him fear.
A noise whistles at my ear
And before I can hear
The moan of the deer
The sight disappears.
The moon is high
In the sky
The stars twinkle
The Milky Way shines
And under it’s gleam
The last breath of a deer fades away.
As the sun rises
The next morning,
A cloud of birds of prey
Swoop down for a copious banquet.
And a few hours later
All is clear.
Over the hill
The last red coals of the family fire glowed in the now fading daylight. Sanja adjusted the cooking pot over the flames to boil water for a last nightcap.
The sun, bright as a pomegranate fruit in the African sky collapsed over the hill leaving an imprint like a dark red birthmark in the sky.
His two sisters and mother were already asleep in their hut having been up working in the fields since before dawn: he reached out to gently pull a cover over his fathers sleeping body as he lay lifeless with fatigue on his rush mat in the dwindling warmth.
As nightfall fell the hills became alive; Birds croaked invitations to play in the dusk. A lion roared its hunger and the slight breeze brought a whiff of eucalyptus and lemongrass.
Sanja was kept awake by his constant dream that hung like a dark cloud over his head. Fantasizing of the images torn from a crumpled magazine he had found one day – a rainbow ending in a pot of gold and pictures of buildings, streets , pretty girls and shoes.
He needed to get away from his village and find out what was at the end of this rainbow that appeared over the hill after the rains. He was frustrated with everyday life, of hauling water, feeding the animals, digging dust and watching his family go hungry.
None of his relatives had ever traveled out of the circle where he lived. They buckled down to their work in the fields every day perfectly happy to be singing and making hay – feeding the animals and not wondering too much about their future. Sanja though had other thoughts – he wanted more out of life. At 15 now it was time for him to become a man and it seemed to him that he had to go somewhere else which could only be better than what he had here. The rainbow was the answer.
Looking over at the hill he started to think about what he would do when he got there how he would find the pot of gold – hoping it wouldn’t be too heavy to carry home
He heard the nighttime warbler – it seemed to him he was screaming at him go go on – go over the hill to the city change your life
It took many many days of walking through the undergrowth – brambles scratched his legs, sharp stones cut into his feet and with every step shredded flesh left an imprint of his own blood a buzz of flies and mosquitos hovered constantly.
He encountered snakes and spiders hanging from the tangled vines. Hid from tracks of a large tiger. Drank dew from leaves and cut coconuts for breakfast.
Up and up he went –surprised that the rainbow was further away that his eye had seen –it had looked so close from his campfire. Finally after 2 weeks of walking he reached the top and looked around for the arc of colours the rainbow had produced – it had disappeared.
Looking back over the way he had come – he saw his village as a tiny tiny spot in the middle of the jungle – a clearing with thatched huts where he could just make out his family and other villagers going about their everyday business in the glistening sun. Suddenly it dawned on him that the pot of gold was there where he had come from, his roots, family, friends, a life in the village that would remain his forever.
He vowed to go back when the time was right; but at this moment in time he put out his thumb and hitched a lift to the City and a new chapter in his life
Over the Hill
From the age of eleven my sister and I spent nearly all our school holidays with an ancient aunt and an even more ancient great grandmother and our biggest treat was a visit, maybe two, to the cinema. We loved the adventure films - Mysterious Island, Swiss Family Robinson,The Moonspinners , In Search of the Castaways. There would be earthquakes, children tumbling down glaciers and in the last film the children hurtle down dangerous waters to emerge out of a hill. Over the hill was a magical land, sometimes a locked-in world with dinosaurs and incredible plants.
I think I still anticipate something wonderful beyond my hills when I approach one, especially on walks, although it's usually a view I look forward to. I was truly rewarded many years ago on our return from the South of France.
We had decided to detour so we could experience the new Millau bridge but en route I noticed one of those ubiquitous brown signs with the words “Cirque de Navacelles.” Having no idea what this was I persuaded a reluctant husband to detour yet further - he hates stopping if I see an intriguing shop and always says “ Can't stop now, there's a car right behind me.” I wonder how many exciting things I’ve missed! But this time he agreed and on and on we drove with no respite from the blazing sun, through endless scrubland, and he becoming ever more irritable.
“We've driven for half an hour and all we see are those flipping signs. I think I’ll turn round.”
“No, let's just go another five minutes as we have come so far already. I’m sure we must be there soon.” Five minutes later: “It must be over that hill, let's carry on a little longer.”
Ten minutes later I’m saying “I'll count to 100 and if there’s nothing we'll turn around. »
It must have been forty-five minutes since seeing the original sign and after winding ever upwards this somewhat bleak and vast hill that we arrived in a deserted carpark; nothing to see but sky and bare rough terrain. I leapt out of the car and rushed to the edge of the carpark.
I was immediately transported into one of my childhood films .The hill around which we had zig-zagged to reach the top was in fact a gorge carved out of the limestone plateau by two rivers. I gazed down at this hidden canyon which resembled a great green amphitheatre. The steep Rocky sides were scrub-covered descending down deep to flat plateau in the middle of which was pointy, three-sided 'pyramid' hill wearing a narrow skirt of green fields; nestled alongside was a tiny hamlet. It was like looking down the wrong end of a telescope.
Of course we had to go ‘over’ the hill. Sadly we didn't go sliding down on a glacier or emerge halfway down on a torrential river but took the road instead. It was poorly maintained and barely wide enough for one vehicle. It was a somewhat dangerous but exhilarating drive down a road clinging to the cliff side as it weaved its winding way into the valley,
The hamlet consisted of some few old stone houses; the scent of boxwood, juniper and cedar permeated the air. The river Vis appeared from its underground journey gushing from the cliff side beside an old mill into a large basin where it probably delved even deeper, right down to Hades I imagine.
We were lucky enough to have a coffee and something to eat in a cafe/B and B. ( more than we find in many of our ramblings around French villages!). My anticipation of something special over the hill was fully justified and at the time we thought we would one day stay in the BandB but on reflection the enjoyment was in the quite first unexpected, surprising discovery.
The intoxicating scents of the scrubland, Holm oaks, boxwoods, junipers and cedars are almost overwhelming.
Read the poem through ...then read it again starting with the bottom line upwards!
Over the Hill
I’m over the hill
So don't keep telling me
I’m not fat and wrinkly
Because to be truly honest
I hate what I see
I'm really not going to kid myself by saying
It's what's inside that matters.
I keep telling myself over and over
That I'm a useless person and nobody wants me
You can say nothing to make me believe
I still deserve compliments and love
Because whatever you say,
I'm not good enough to be loved
I cannot believe that
Looks and youth are still on my side,
For when I gaze in the mirror I always say to myselfAm I really over the hill?