Arfons - The slow death of my village

On your way from Le Lampy, there is one bend where you have to stop because this is where you get your first glimpse of Arfons.

We stopped there and Arfons, my "birthplace", looked just the same as ever from there except maybe for a few windows on what used to be a barn which meant people were living there.

The fields looked bigger. Big enough to harvest quite a lot of hay... no longer stacked though. Just the way it looks like in Brittany.

When you get to the village, you have to cross a small bridge over a very small brook. There used to be cows there in the fields. 

The fields go right up to the edge of the forest.

Small fields in Brittany. Huge fields in Arfons.

All those fields used to belong to our family. It was fun to walk across them on our way to Le Lampy whenever we felt like going there through the forest for a change.

I was taking pictures of my Bon-Papa’s fields when a car drove by. I looked at the driver just in case he was someone from my past. You never know. His face didn’t ring a bell even though the guy slowed down and looked at me.

The car turned around and went back to the village. 

1. The grocery now closed & 2. The cowshed where we bought our milk

While I was taking a picture of what we used to call “Le château” (the castle), the place we we used to have so much fun, some cousins’ place, the car came around once more... If Popeye hadn’t been there, I would have felt a little bit spooked.

"Le château d'Arfons" (XVIIIth century) & the church in the background
On our way to my Bonne-Maman’s vegetable garden which now belongs to Swee’ Pea, I was starting to feel a little bit worried. Besides the fact that almost all the houses looked quite derelict, there was no one nowhere to be seen. A few cars parked. Nobody outside. No children. No young people hanging around on the village square. Nobody besides the guy in the car who kept driving around and looking at me.

The wall is as old as it looks like... Centuries. The currant bushes are at least 90 years old.

Another view. This is where my Bonne-Maman used to have a "field" of dahlias and gladioli.

I felt like crying while getting into my Bonne-Maman’s garden. Her red currant bushes were still there. So were her bay-trees. Someone still takes care of the garden but one thing was missing. Her beautiful dahlias and gladioli that she replanted every year for one reason only - they were beautiful. Actually, she was the one who was missing from the garden. It looked so empty. I couldn’t help thinking of all the hours she spent taking care of her flowers and bushes. Mainly for us, her family and her friends.

Popeye was having a phone call in the car so I walked back to the village square. I was crossing the road when “the” car came up and stopped. A man came out. He was smiling.
“I’ve been watching you (oh really?) and I’m pretty sure you’ve been here before. You are not a tourist, are you?”

I laughed at him.

“Would a tourist take pictures of Mathieu’s fields?”

“I knew it. I knew it.” The guy was getting excited but he still couldn’t understand who I was.

Well, I had no idea who he was either. He was 50ish. He obviously was from the village. Too old to be one of my childhood friends’ sons though.

He grinned at me.

“I am Jeannot*, Jeanine’s son.” Oh my God. The village grocer’s son. The kid we used to nickname “P’tit Gibus” because of a very famous movie. A sweet kid. A funny kid.

And now my past was catching up with me... 

Jeanine, one of my mother’s friends. Even when the store was closed, I’d go and knock at her door: “Jeanine, we need to buy eggs, please. Bonne-Maman is set on making custard. The milk is boiling and she just found out she needs four more eggs.” 
Jeannine would go get the eggs and her notebook. “Your grandma will pay me later.”
“Thank you, Jeanine.”
I’d wave bye-bye to ‘Jeannot’ and go back home in a hurry.

And now ‘Jeannot’ was standing in front of me. Sort of quizzing me because he still hadn’t really understood who I was.

How I fitted in the village’s lore. Who was my family? Who were my ancestors?

He was very friendly. And he almost flew in my arms when I told him about my Bonne-Maman and my Bon-Papa.

And we started talking about his mom (who had died two years ago) and his aunts Louisette and Alida (who never were my favorite persons but...)

And about other people from the village. This is how I learnt that most "kids" from my group had left the village once and for all. Some had kept the family home for their children. There were less than 100 people 
living  now in Arfons. (About 800 in the early 70‘s.) Very sad. Most of them being quite old, it means that pretty soon Arfons will more or less disappear.

I was very surprised because when I was growing up, lots of people would come from all over Southern France and spend their summer there.

What can you expect when a place is snowbound from November till March? When there are no local stores, no post-office, no school left. When you are 30 kms away from a hospital? 10 kms away from a doctor?

Nothing much to do there either. No work.

‘Jeannot’ decided once and for all to stay in Arfons and he is a farmer there.

He was very curious to know where I had been all those years... I told him... a little bit hard to sum up 40 years in a couple of sentences. Popeye who had joined us took our choice of Brittany upon himself! This was kind of him. It would have been very hard to tell this “kid” that I loved so much my life at Les Tertres and that no way, we’d be moving back to Arfons.

‘Jeannot’ had listened to me quite in awe. The girl who had come to fetch some eggs (or whatever) for her grandmother had been away for so long and gone to so many places. Amazing!

I did not want him to feel bad. His life was probably quieter than mine. Not easier than mine probably even if my life has been quite chaotic lately. His life had been his choice, once and for all. (Well, my life is also my choice but only... most of the time.)

So we went back to talking about my old friends and relatives. He mentioned that my cousin Jean-Pierre was here from La Réunion where he has been living most of the time for the past 35 years.

I decided to surprise him. I kissed ‘Jeannot’ good-bye.

“Will you be coming back one of these days?” he asked.

What would you have answered if you were me? I said... “Probably.”

He looked happy and he added: “You can easily find a house to buy if you want one, you know.”

There were two houses in Arfons I would have liked to keep... 
My grandmother's house because it was the house she got when her father died... and that's where I spent my teenage years.

1. My Bonne-Maman's house & 2. The windows of the attic that was my bedroom.
And the second house was the family home, Bon-Papa Mathieu's home where I spent most of my childhood. There was an ugly fight over it and my Bonne-Maman lost it. Very unfair but life is not fair.

On the left, my Bon-Papa's house with the red shutters. On the other house, the slates were meant to protect from the snow and the cold.

Next stop was my cousin’s place. My Bon-Papa Mathieu’s house. Quite different from what it was when we were growing up. Three things remain from the old house. The carriage entrance and two windows. The main room window (which now his kitchen window) and our grandfather's bedroom window (left, on the 2nd floor). The shutters were not red but brown like every shutter in the village.

Jean-Pierre was very surprised to see me. Last time we had met was in Paris, fifteen years ago at least.

We used to be very good friends. He was one of my mother’s cousins (the youngest child of my Bonne-Maman’s younger sister). So we grew up together. He was one year older than me. We shared the same kind of wretched lives... we got along just fine.

It was very surprising talking to him. I discovered a very disappointed man, an almost bitter man. I think I know why but this is not my story to tell.

All I can quote is his parting comment.

“We did have a lot of fun and a lot of happy moments while we were growing up all together.”

Which was something I totally agreed with except that I really wonder why we never kept all this alive.

Agreed. Jean-Pierre and I travelled a lot around but the others never kept close either while they were all living in the same area, more or less.

Suddenly, my coming back to my childhood/teenage nest was tainted. Sort of.

The skies had turned threatening. All I could see was a ruined village, a dying village. A village which had been so filled with life 40 years ago.
A house very close to my grandmother's. There used to be a saddler there.

One of the streets towards the church and my grandmother's house.

They don't bake bread there anymore but at least the house looks nice.

This used to be a hotel until the end of the 1990s. Right in front of my grandfather's house.

"Main Street" in Arfons. They advertise the upcoming village fair which used to be quite a big thing in the area.

The village hall. It used to house the school too.

And right close to the village hall, the war memorial.

The village church from the back. XIIIth century.

One hope though. Throughout the ages, Arfons has been repeatedly destroyed and it always rose from its ashes. Maybe it will happen one day...

One thing is sure, it was a grand place where to grow up.

*This is not his real name! 

*Good Luck, and Good Night*


Nancy said...

I could almost see ghosts dancing in your pictures—ghosts of what Arfons used to be. It's always weird, almost eerie, to go back to a place that used to be familiar to you—it's at once the same and different.

I'm glad you went back, though, for no other reason than to have you share your childhood memories with me!

fiona said...

Mammodouy's Stories said...

@ Fiona -- I loved your comment which said: "It is sad to hear of a village full of ghosts - but we are an English family who bought and did up one of the houses 12 years ago, and we love the village. Though we don't live there full time we are creating lots of happy memories for our children from there and the village changes from year to year. One year the bar in the middle of the square had a burlesque cabaret put on by the waiters that was so popular it ran for several nights and we could not get a seat. We have a small shop there now, not as charming Janine's delightful alimentation, as her elderly husband did not want to continue after she died a few years ago, but we can get daily bread and provisions. And the bar has been bought by the commune, after the village earned a small fortune from the wind turbines above the Lampy. So we have hope...and great happiness there." -- My trip to Arfons was way before the village hit the jackpot if I may say so...
Since then I have written a sequel - http://mammodouy.blogspot.fr/2013/05/arfons-and-miracle-
I love Arfons which is my family birthplace and I am very happy it is recovering!