Monday, October 23, 2006

Fêting the national day

In 2000 we arrived in France in springtime, my favourite time of year. The French family was glad to see us, my sister-in-law, Gaelle, was just about to give birth to her third child and a wedding was in preparation for Jacques’ brother, Pierre, for June. We moved our things into Jacques’ brothers house in a village near his parents house. Jean wanted us to finish the small things in the house that needed finishing. However the ‘small things’ that needed finishing (the tiling and attachment of the bath, heating system, sanding and polishing of wooden floors and window frames and under-garden waste-disposal system) were more daunting then we thought. But the novelty of actually having our own cosy house and garden compensated for the mess and debris the builders had left behind. Luckily we could bathe at Jacques’ parents house and the kids had shower-baths in the garden with the garden hose!

We drove around the countryside visting summer second-hand markets or brocantes and antique sales in local towns and villages. Summer outdoor theatres opened and the weekends were busy eating with family or friends who dropped in. A new cousin, Baptiste, was born at the end of May and Laure became an official aunt or tata few days later when she married Pierre. I prepared an English tea-party for my mother-in-law’s birthday in June. We felt very close to the family and delighted to be around.

Our village was naturally curious about us. Our neighbour, Madame Martin, the wife of the village goat farmer became our link to the community. My French at this stage was basic, limited to small talk and weather descriptions. One Saturday I impulsively bought two ducklings at the market, which we named Alison and Vanessa. We left them in the garden while we ate lunch. An hour later they were gone! Madame Martin generously helped search for them, and they turned up nearby on her land. She teased me about my farming skills and showed me what food they ate and where we should put them (in a caged area at the end of the garden because they would smell!) In the summer evenings I would stand outside and try to ‘chat’ about ducks or children (our only subjects in common) while she fed the goats or collected her washing from the hedge outside their farmhouse. Madame Martin had a fast rolling local dialect or patois and if another villager was there she would launch into a non-stop account of village comings and goings, which I could hardly follow. I hung out with her and other village members most evenings in the summer and by the end I could just about decipher the words and even more important the subject!

Marc was able to join the local school immediately in the nearest town, Sauzé-Vaussais. All five Hauwaert children had attended this primary school. In fact it was the same Directrice in charge who welcomed Jacques back with warmth, and surprise that he had married an English girl. Marc accepted the change of language easily, helped by the fact that he was placed in the same class as his cousin, Francois, who was nine months older. Francois helped guide Marc around the maternelle or pre-school part of the school. Days were long though, starting at 9am and finishing at 4.30pm, except for Wednesdays when there was no school. Meanwhile Jacques and I dropped off Nina with her grandparents most days and cleared out an old house we had just bought.

The house was in Caunay, a nearby village where Jacques had previously bought a run-down and abandoned 16th century logis or manor house in 1995. In 1999 we found another similar house, also in a bad state of neglect and bought it immediately. This house was called Columbier or Pigeon Loft and it was big enough to convert into two 3 or 4-bedroomed houses which we could rent out. Alongside Columbier was a small two-roomed house with a large barn that had belonged to Monsieur Prêt, who owned all the land and property. His parents had lived there and when they died he ran a small grocery shop, then a tailoring business from the house. A bachelor in his sixties, Monsieur Prêt finally sold the small house to us in 2000 and moved to a home for the elderly. His health was failing and the house had no water supply indoor or bathroom facilities.

We bought the house as it was, and opened the door to find all his stock, clothes, papers and some sixty years of rubbish still there. So our days were spent clearing out, sorting and doing trips to the local dump. As the house emptied we worked on the garden and the barn. The change of pace, the physical labour and the fresh air was good for both Jacques and me. My depression lifted and Jacques was relaxed and enjoying spending time with Marc and Nina. We took pleasure in the small things in life; sunflowers and maize growing near our house, a picnic by the river, a trip to the beach with Gaelle and the cousins and visiting the local markets to buy our food.

In summer we celebrated the fete nationale or Bastille Day on the 14th July. We joined Jacques parents in their village and I thought that I would be seeing a typical French cultural event. However, I heard several English voices, and as we grouped together to sit on the long tables with bench seats I realized one of the four tables was ‘English’. I hadn’t reckoned that so many English people lived in ‘my’ village. I was torn between going to say hello and pretending to be ‘French’, which I could get away with being seated next to my in-laws. Finally I walked over to chat to my fellow countrymen and was rebuffed by the English as ‘not one of them’. The English families had all moved to France for ‘a better life’, had bought local farmhouses at knockdown prices and were smugly cheering themselves for doing so. I didn’t have such a story to share and left them to it, drinking their wine and comparing their farmhouse conversions. I sat back on my bench and wondered which side of the fence I was on. I could hardly say I was French on such an historic day, but then I didn’t feel English either…..

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