Today, we visited an elderly farmer neighbour, whose wife is in hospital with respiratory problems. They were the first local French people we met in 1997. Monsieur F has always been difficult to understand because of his strong regional accent and lack of teeth, but, after 19 years, we can decipher about half of what he says.
Talking to him reminded me of another of the dying breed of old-style paysans, whom I’ll call Monsieur C. He died in his eighties in the hot summer of 2003.
Bygone Way of Life
The stereotyped vision of a French paysan 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, the farmers mostly drive air-conditioned tractors with integral CD players.
Today, the word “peasant” in English is often used in a pejorative sense to denote someone who is oafish or a country bumpkin. In French, paysan means a smallholder or small farmer and, although it can be used pejoratively, is more often used to designate the person’s occupation as a farmer.
Monsieur C 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 be seen in all weathers, wearing an outsize floppy cap, cycling slowly down to the village – a distance of 6 km – and then pushing his bike uphill on the return journey.
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 respounchous (wild asparagus-type shoots).
A Lost Tale
The story goes that he went to Germany during World War II. I’m not sure if he was a prisoner of war or if he was drafted for the 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 until the 1950s. No one knows exactly what happened to him there. He never married.
It’s a pity that we did not get to know him better before he died but there’s no guarantee that he would have wanted to talk about his time in Germany and then in Russia. It seems unlikely that he was a KGB spy.
We went to his funeral in a packed church on a blisteringly hot day during the canicule of 2003. He is buried in the peaceful cemetery at Teysseroles, which we are helping to restore.
His house remained empty for some time, inhabited intermittently by his stone-deaf sister, who inherited it and was trying to sell it. Bisected by a road and in need of too much work, no one wanted the property and what was left of Monsieur C’s meagre possessions was burgled. Fortunately, someone bought it a few years ago and lives in it permanently. There’s a potager and tubs of flowers, although they haven’t done a great deal to the house itself.
Untended, Monsieur C’s tiny vineyard further along the road has reverted to the wild.
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