The stereotyped vision of a French peasant is of an old man wearing a beret with a Gitane permanently screwed into the corner of his mouth, riding a bicycle or driving a rusting 2CV. These days, they mostly drive air-conditioned tractors with integral CD players.
A few of the old style peasants remain, but they are a dying breed. One of these was a neighbour, Monsieur C, who died a few years ago. He lived alone in a dilapidated farmhouse without central heating, with an outside tap and a couple of naked light bulbs for lighting. He cooked over an open fire. On sunny days in sub-zero temperatures, he opened all the windows to let in whatever warmth the sun provided.
Poor as a church mouse, he never owned a car. He could often be seen in all weathers cycling slowly down to the village – a distance of 6km – and then pushing his bike uphill on the return journey.
The story goes that he went to Germany during World War II as part of the notorious Service de Travail Obligatoire, which forced able-bodied young Frenchmen to work in German factories and farms. Monsieur C had the ill fortune to end up in eastern Germany, where the Russians picked him up as they advanced on Berlin. He was taken back to Russia and did not return to France till the mid-1950s. No one knows exactly what happened to him there.
A shy, gentle man, we would sometimes meet him in the woods where he was picking mushrooms or as we passed by his carefully tended vineyard. Poor as he was, he would offer us some grapes or a bunch of wild asparagus (repounsous, in the local language).
It’s disappointing that we did not get to know him better before he died. We went to his funeral in a packed church on a blisteringly hot day. He is buried in the peaceful, tiny cemetery close by. His house remains empty; bisected by a road and in need of too much work, no one wants the property. What was left of his meagre possessions has been burgled. Untended, his vines have reverted to the wild. One of the last representatives of a bygone era has passed into obscurity.
Copyright © 2010 A writer’s lot in France, all rights reserved.
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I know. I could kick myself for not having got to know him better. There aren’t many left from his generation…
What a tale I bet he could have told, probably would have made an amazing book either fiction or non. Now all his secrets carried with him to his grave.