Sunday, June 13, 2004

Allez Allée Allais

Last night we stayed in Hornfleur, a seaside town on the coast of Normandy. My parents are looking after the children and we have found a nice hotel for a quiet weekend. It was my French teacher who gave me the idea of visiting Hornfleur. She had given me a photocopied text about the region which mentioned that Hornfleur had a number of cultural connections including three museums, one of impressionist art, especially the work of Boudin, one to the musician Eric Satie (whose piano music I learned to play as a child) and one to a writer called Alphonse Allais. She also told me the town was very pretty with traditional wooden buildings.

The town itself has been no disappointment. Small winding streets lead this way and that around an attractive harbour surrounded by rows of restaurants. Yesterday, I sought information about the Musée Alphonse Allais in a bookshop. They had a pile of his books lying there, so I bought one called "Pensées, Textes et Anecdotes". When I asked about a museum, they thought for a moment, and then directed me down the street to find a pharmacy shop.

It seems Allais grew up in this town during the mid 19th-Century as the son of the town pharmacist. The pharmacy shop is still there and is run by a gentleman who is a big fan of Allais. Fortunately, there was still room for us to join the guided tour of the Musée Alphonse Allais (officially the smallest museum in France) the following day. It seems it is really necessary to make a reservation in advance.

So, today we arrived at the pharmacy shop at 10 am and were greeted by the owner. Several other rather 'literary' looking French people had also arrived and we made our way up a flight of winding stairs to a small cluttered room at the top of the old wooden building.

Alphonse Allais was a joker from childhood. As a child he enjoyed experimenting with the bottles of chemicals that were found in the pharmacy shop. He invented coloured dyes and tested them on the poodles old ladies tied up outside when they came into to buy their cough drops. The museum is lined with old pharmacy bottles as if it were a storeroom from a hundred and fifty years ago. Alongside the bottles are arranged many of Allais' visual jokes, such as the siphon for filtering long words from manuscripts (shown in the photo), a painting of "the gathering of tomatoes by an apoplectic cardinal on the shores of the Red Sea" (which is, needless to say, a solid red square), and a few bags of black confetti for widows (small size, so that they don't enjoy themselves too much).

Our pharmacist guide proved to be a great raconteur. He clearly loved revealing all the secret humour behind the piles of junk arranged on the shelves around us. By the end of the visit, which lasted about an hour, I began to think that the epithet of 'smallest museum' was perhaps the most distinguished of all.

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