Thursday, January 13, 2011

85. France

Maureen and Peter moved to France and suggested that I join them. The climate was mild and the area virtually crime free, so I decided to go there for a trial period. Maureen made a punishing round trip to Charles de Gaulle airport to meet me and escort me back to the little farming area in Normandy where they were living. I think she was travelling and waiting around for at least twelve hours altogether. Paris may be wonderful for lovers in the Springtime, but it was no fun for an eighty two year old granny dragging a heavy suitcase, albeit on wheels. We dragged it on and off the airport bus, along crowded streets which were being dug up all over the place, and up the stairs to the railway station which was dirty and uncomfortable with very few benches on which to sit. Maureen bought us two paper cups of undrinkable coffee and we managed to find a seat where we roosted while sipping. I looked in vain for a smart, chic Parisian! Most of the people did not even look clean. It was a horrid place full of dull, drab people. I think the train journey lasted about two hours and, fortunately, the train was clean, fast and comfortable.

We eventually arrived Maureen’s house which was situated in a village called le Bourge in Normandy. There were probably twenty houses in the village, a church, a school and the Marie’s office. Every little village has its own Mayor who is King! Nothing is done without the Mayor’s knowledge and permission. The Mayor of le Bourge was a wonderful character whom you will hear more about later. The charming little house, which faced on to a quiet country road, had a small walled enclosed garden at the back. The wall separated the house from the little church and its graveyard of which I had a great view from my bedroom window. The church bell chimed on the hour from seven in the morning until seven at night and at 7.00 a.m., noon and 7.00 p.m. it chimed a particular sequence of chimes, numbering over one hundred in all, which called those working in the fields to pray the Angelus. Previous owners had sold the house because the chiming bell drove the wife nearly mad. I found the chimes quite reassuring.

The church was only used for funeral services and burials, the graveyard housing about one hundred departed villagers with room for a hundred or so more. Considering their healthy life style, the average life span of the locals was fairly short.

The village had a handy-man called Bruno and when I asked what he did I was told “everything”. And that was so. His many responsibilities included keeping the graveyard neat and tidy, doing all repair work, laying gravel where needed and putting sand on the roads when it snowed. He worked very hard and was not controlled by any union. Of course he knew everybody and everything, and could get you anything you needed. He liked his wine! With many smiles and much miming, I was able to inform him that I came from South Africa near Cape Town.

Coming from South Africa, where I clutch my handbag and hide my money in my bra when I go out, the relaxed atmosphere of le Bourge took some getting used to. I was looking over my shoulder, as usual, when Maureen said “You don’t need to hang on to your bag, Biddy, you are in France now.” The only time the locals lock their cars and houses is during the tourist season, when there are strangers around. I enjoyed sitting in the Supermarket watching the shoppers, mostly farming people whose families had been connected for generations, greeting each other with kisses on both cheeks. Until puberty the children are only kissed on one cheek, and I don’t think it matters which one.

Generally speaking, the population were an unattractive lot, but that might be caused by a certain amount of interbreeding. But, let me hasten to add, they were friendly, cheerful and self confident. They knew who they were and where they belonged. They did not have one child in Australia, another in America and everlasting clouds of indecision hanging over their heads wondering, do we stay or do we go and how can we afford the Medical Aid and Pharmacy bills; and who will Jacob Zuma marry next? Everyone appeared to be so relaxed. And I learned to control my “check out” impatience because everyone stopped for a chat as their groceries were put through the machine. It was not unusual for the cashier to leave her post in order to kiss the customer at the check-out on both cheeks!

Lunch is almost a sacred event for the French. Everything, except the restaurants, closes from twelve ‘til two Monday to Friday, and no offices of any importance open at all on Mondays. On Sunday morning the butchers and bakers in the village take it in turns to open, a Frenchman cannot be expected to face a day without his fresh bread and fresh meat. The confectionery and patisseries were stuff that drools are made of, but I was not served one decent cup of coffee. Many thousand English people live in France, they seem to have a delightful social life, and if I were half of a couple I would like to live there too. I sampled the medical system, which is very relaxed. Maureen’s doctor was a French Canadian woman who spoke English, which meant she had many English patients. I booked an appointment to see her and there was no receptionist or book-keeper around at the time and so, at the end of the consultation, I simply paid her, in cash, over the desk.

Maureen and Peter had suggested that I live with them, and I was very tempted. The medical system was very good, and almost free for an English pensioner. At my last annual check up I had been told that my porcine aortic heart valve was “calcifying” and that I would not be able to withstand further open heart surgery. However, there was a new procedure being used in America and France, which enabled valves to be replaced without getting out the Black and Decker.

We visited a friend who was recovering from a quadruple bypass. After ten days in hospital he was now “enjoying” six weeks recuperation, at the expense of the French government medical system. This ‘recuperation’ included daily physiotherapy, lectures and occupational therapy, in a rehabilitation unit set in beautiful grounds next to a golf course, beside a lake. To the French, food is of prime importance and our friend was served a generous continental breakfast, a splendid five course luncheon and a five course dinner! Avocado pear and prawns was not unusual for a starter! By the time our friend was discharged he could walk five miles with ease.

I registered with the French Medical system, intending to see a cardiologist as soon as my papers were through. But, unexpectedly, Maureen and Peter decided to sell their house and return to England, so it was pointless my making any long term medical plans. Meanwhile, back in South Africa, the new, still risky procedure had been carried out on three patients who had all survived. Unfortunately, it later transpired that I was not a suitable candidate for this op, so I must just make the most of every day and hope piggy wig will keep going a while longer. But, back to France!

Every year the Mayor gives a Christmas party for the “ancients” (French for oldies) in the area, which is paid for out of the Mayor’s fund. Mo and Peter were invited invited to attend, and so was I, but I would have to pay for my lunch as I was not yet a registered resident. At the appointed time we arrived at the restaurant and joined those who had just arrived, everyone greeting everyone with the customary kisses on cheeks, friends and strangers alike. I managed to say “ma nom est Cynsia, (the French do not pronounce th) je suis la soeur de Madam Comley.” For which I was rewarded with huge smiles and “Mais oui, mais oui,” and more kisses on the cheeks. That spelling is probably all up to maggots, but I don’t have a French/English dictionary and this is all more than my computer spell check can handle.

We had arrived at the restaurant at noon and only left at five o’clock. I cannot remember how many courses were served, but the portions were very large, accompanied by lots of bread. The French have a delightful custom, which I saw copied in the homes of English friends we visited, whereby a little dish of lemon sorbet was served before the main course, to clear the palate. For my own taste, forget the pork chops, just bring on more sorbet! All during this Christmas luncheon, men would stand up and tell funny stories and the Mayor made three speeches in which he greeted new comers and visitors to the village. I could not understand any of the jokes, nor a word spoken by the mayor, but I laughed and clapped along with everyone else. Then we were handed song sheets, but as Frere Jacque was not included in the titles I was unable to join in.

There is a particularly evil drink that is brewed from apples and not sold commercially. It is clear white in colour, about 120% proof and laced with gunpowder. It should be used with caution and diluted with water, like Ouzo. I drank some neat and I think the hair on my head grew an inch in ten seconds. Driving through the lanes I could see plastic sheets spread under the apple trees to collect the fruit as it dropped. These droppings are then collected in piles in the fields and left to do their worst. There is some rivalry in the villages as to which family makes the most lethal brew. Devonshire cider is mothers’ milk in comparison.

Across the road lived a family with about eight children. Large families are encouraged in France and after delivering a fourth child the mother is given a medal. The child allowances are so high that neither the father nor the mother worked, their job being to bring up the children. I think the dad did “a bit on the side”, work I mean. They lived in a small house and the front yard would have done Steptoe and Son proud. But, the children were lovely, polite and friendly. Two more families lived in that row with two children a piece, all lovely kids. At Halloween they came to the door Trick or Treating, with other children from the village, and at Christmas one of the Dads came round wearing a Father Christmas costume. I was getting to like France more and more and began playing French language tapes in my bedroom.

The walks in the area were lovely. When some of the railway lines were closed, the French Government had them covered over with compacted earth and made them into cycle tracks and walk ways. These walks were safe and delightful, bordered by lovely trees and hedges, through open farm land. Maureen carried a whistle which she used to call her two Boarder Terriers to heel and one day she blew it and a huge herd of cattle came pounding across the field to the fence. It was quite unnerving. There was a wild cat that lived along one of our walks and she would always suddenly appear and join us. The dogs were so excited to see her and they played games together until she had been given her daily treat and then she would disappear back into the undergrowth.

Unfortunately, it was not all fun and roses for Maureen and Peter. They were trying to get things done which was very difficult when they could not make themselves understood. At least one English woman was making a fortune as an interpreter. People paid her a monthly retainer to be on call, or she could be paid by the hour. The one time Peter consulted her she messed up their whole telephone system and it took weeks to put it right. Maureen is a very well organised person who likes everything to run smoothly and work! The constant hassles, the inability to communicate, the lack of an English Library, the loneliness and the absence of the charity work she had so enjoyed doing in England was causing some distress. And, she hated driving on the wrong side of the road! Also, they had not been made aware of the laws regarding ownership of land and property in France, which were very complicated and restrictive. Property could only be left to the children, no matter how delinquent or far away they may be. When one partner died the survivor would need the permission of the deceased’s son or daughter to stay in the home! The only way round this law would be for Mo and Peter to get divorced and remarry under a special contract. Those property laws were one of the reasons for all the deserted, dilapidated farms and buildings one sees in France. The heirs are not interested in the property and yet it cannot be sold.

Normandy is steeped in History and I was thrilled to see the Bayeux Tapestries. I was unable to see the graves of the English and German soldiers, but we did visit the American cemetery and that was awesome. It is situated on the cliffs above the Normandy beaches where many, many thousands of men were killed. I wondered if the marked crosses actually had the right remains buried under them. The landings had been a disaster because of incorrect intelligence; some paratroopers actually drowned in waterlogged fields, trapped under their parashoots, while others were accidentally dropped into the sea. The Germans knew the landings were about to happen and were sitting at the top of the cliffs, waiting for them.

The German cemetery, which I glimpsed from the highway, is surrounded by trees, one for every soldier buried there. But I must not get “wound up” on the subject of war, just to say that the Normandy beaches and the cemeteries filled me with sadness and despair. Standing at every cross I could see the parents, wives and children of those men.

Maureen and Peter's house was sold and they were about to return to England, and so, having been away for  six months, I returned to Somerset Oaks.

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