Growing up in Arfons (Southern France) in the 60s

Don't try to find me! I'm the photographer, remember?

The summer I turned 10, we moved permanently down south. My parents had decided to separate. My father would be staying in Normandy and my mother had applied for a teaching job not too far from her family which meant that we’d be going very often to Arfons. Every school holiday and one week-end from time to time.

The village was a very tight structure. My mother’s friends and cousins were coming back to Arfons very often. Some were living there all year long. Their children whom I had been spending time with summer after summer truly became my childhood (and teenage years) friends. Actually we all were more or less cousins... some very removed but still part of a huge family - the village.

There were about 10 children more or less the same age. Later on, young people our age (only a handful though) started coming up to Arfons to spend their summer holidays. They were part of the «tourist» crowd. But we included them in our group.

It was a tight knit group though. Plus we were not asked to take care of our youngest brothers and sisters. So we spent all our time together... We called our groupe : «la bande".

Our life together was fun. So much fun.

Living in Arfons was very safe at that time. We grew up quite free. I remember only one rule - we all had to be home by 7:30 p.m. every night because we had to eat at least one meal with our families. After eating with them, we were allowed to go out again... And usually Sunday was family day.

The curfew was quite strict though when we were younger. It became slacker as soon as we turned 15, if I remember right. It was very easy for our parents to punish us. We were grounded. It happened to each one of us more than once... At the time, when one of us was missing, we were devastated.

What did we do in the early 60s in Arfons that motivated my cousin to say (50 years later) that we had such a grand time growing up in Arfons?

Life was very simple. We had no tv even though around 1965, the village council put one into what was pompously called the recreation room. We almost never went there mainly because our parents were there almost every night.

We thought it a pity unless there was a movie. Life was so much fun outside.

I think I mentioned that we used to walk a lot.

During the day, we’d walk to Le Lampy, usually carrying our lunch to spend the whole day there. If it was too cold or rainy, then we’d either go to our cousins’ place (‘Le château’ in Arfons) or we had our picnics in some estates that were sometimes used as summer camps for kids from the cities.

My grandfather and other friends’ fathers were foresters and teachers. They had access to most summer camps around Arfons. It was nice to spend a rainy day inside an empty estate/summer camp... 3 or 4 kms away from Arfons.

Having picnics together was a lot of fun. Bread, tomatoes (from the garden), cheese and pork sausage and that was it. We were miles away from the consumer society our younger siblings and our children would grow up in.

Walking was so much fun too. We felt so free going through the forest. Actually we felt free everywhere.

At night, if we were feeling tired after too much walking and swimming and playing volleyball, we’d spend the evening sitting at the local café, drinking grenadine or mint water... or just tap water. The café-owner was a cousin too. He was pretty cool... I’m sure he never made a lot of money there. But it was nice.

If our parents were at the café, then we’d go to the graveyard. We’d sit down and have long talks while watching the will-o’-the-wisps or the shooting stars.

It was easy to keep track of the time. The church clock stroke once every fifteen minutes and then the exact number representing the hour. (I still remember its sounds since I used to sleep in my grandmother’s attic, quite close to the church.) It was not bothering us. We felt relaxed actually, counting the strokes instead of checking the watch most of us did not own anyway.

Some nights, we’d walk again down to the view point indicator which we called ‘la table d’orientation’, 2 kms away (one way). It was pure magic to watch the  lights of the small cities in the plain below. And then walking back home, talking, joking and laughing.

We did laugh a lot. We also sung a lot. There are some songs now that I still know by heart because we sang them night after night while walking.

Pretty soon, people from Carcassonne started to rent houses for the summer. It was fun meeting new young people our age. Our group grew a lot - It doubled in size actually.

We kept on having a lot of fun. The more the merrier they say. It was true. How lucky we were.

If I remember right, when we turned 14 or 15, we were allowed to have parties at night at the ‘château’.

50 years ago, this branch was our natural swing, sort of...
View from the back
One word about the ‘château’... Not a real castle and right in the middle of the village, in front of the church actually. It had been built in the XVIIIth century and was a hunting lodge at a time where the forest abounded in foxes, wolves, stags and wild boars. Then it was sold to several families until my cousins’ grandfather bought it for his daughter as a wedding gift. She was marrying the primary school teacher. A very nice wedding gift indeed.

When we were young, we used to play in the attic. Lots of fun too... except that from time to time it was a little bit dangerous due to worm-eaten beams. But we loved our costume parties. My cousins’ mother came from a very upper middle-class family. She had plenty of fancy dresses and ball gowns from her youth plus a lot of wonderful clothes from her parents’ wardrobes. We were free to use them. I still remember those crazy afternoons and evenings when we made up plays and games, all dressed up to the nines.

When we started turning a little bit older, my cousins’ mom offered to let us use the first floor of the left wing. It became our own kingdom. We held dances there. We had picnics there. We listened to music there. The most wonderful part being that it was entirely ours and we decorated it with old furniture we found in the attic.

Fun life, wasn’t it? Complete freedom. Without any adult supervision.

Well, yes and no. Like I said before, the village was a very close knit structure. We didn’t realize it but we were watched all the time. There were several mothers, spinsters and widows who just didn’t really believe in freedom... but those were the 60s and with people coming from the city, life was bound to be different. Therefore they did watch us... surreptitiously but surely.

And whatever we did and they did not like would be told to the community (i.e. the other parents). Sometimes it did not matter. Sometimes, they turned a very silly thing into a true scandal. Luckily a lot of adults believed that we were nice kids, which we were... and that youth must have its fling.

Well our fling wasn’t much! And when it was so-so, we learnt to hide from them...

What did we do that was so outrageous? I remember a couple of things that a younger generation will guffaw about.

One summer, we used a skull we had found in the forest as a candle holder during our parties. We called it Oscar and Oscar was fun to have around. Some nosey women found out by watching us dance through the slits of the shutters. They told the village priest who in a sermon, rebuked young people (us) for their most awful misbehavior... None of us were practicing catholics neither were our parents. But at least, people had something to talk about while buying bread.

We gave Oscar away after a while to some archeologist, I think! The legend went that it was a monk’s skull from the XIIIth.

Another thing we were fond of was poaching for crawfish. Highly forbidden, of course and quite reprehensible, I know. We did not do it very often though. Once or twice every summer.

To fish crawfish, we would have needed a fishing license which was utterly beyond our capacities.  It was so easier to fish them by night with a flashlight and drop nets filled with rotting meat.

Besides we had no other choice. If we wanted to fish enough crawfish to feed 10 to 20 young famished stomachs, we had to be cunning.

Well, we could have stuck to snails...

Spending days picking up snails was no problem for us. It was even fun and it took all summer long. No problem. And before school started, we’d have a big snail party.

Fishing a lot of crawfish in one go was totally impossible. At least legally speaking.

We were lucky. Two girls in our group were sisters. Their father was the forester in charge of fighting poaching which was very common in the forest. He had a big flaw. He drank too much and when drunk, he got very talkative.

This is how we knew beforehand where he and his colleagues would be working during the night... trying to find “professional” poachers.

We’d go catch our crawfish in the area where we knew they wouldn’t be. Usually it was a matter of a couple of hours to catch what we needed... We were busy, busy, busy... Then enough was enough. We were very careful to release the smaller ones though...

The problem was to bring them all back to the village and then to cook them. As I said, we were cunning. There always was an empty and abandoned barn somewhere belonging to someone’s family as faraway  from the village as possible.

You can’t imagine how tasteful sauté crawfish can be.

Actually as soon as we left the village, we were totally free. Nobody ever followed us in the forest. Nobody ever questioned where we had been after sundown.

Nowadays crawfish has almost totally disappeared from the brooks near Arfons. I’ve been told that it had been a victim of globalization. Someone very foolish imported crawfish from the States  that destroyed our crawfish through some “plague”.

My cousin was right. We did have a grand time growing up in our village.  So many wonderful memories.

I am so sorry that the younger generations did not experience our way of life.

From time to time but only when I turn into an old lady, I feel sorry that I never got the opportunity to teach my son how to track wild animals, from foxes to wild boars.
I never taught him how to catch a trout in a brook. (Well this was not my forte... But I could have tried to show him.)
I never taught him to find his way in a forest.
Well, one good thing I never taught him: How to poach for crawfish.

He never learnt how to catch an adder either. (I imagine he will never miss this experience.)

So many things that were part of my childhood and teenage years while  enjoying life in such a safe and wonderful environment.


By the way, I just noticed the way we were dressed up for a picnic... (We were 12 at the time.)
Funny, so funny. No jeans for us! “Autres temps autres moeurs” (Customs change with the times)!

*Good Luck, and Good Night*

1 comment:

Myrna said...

Love your stories, your memories!