Belgium! Oh, Belgium...

The new Belgian government

Belgium is a very strange country indeed!

Did you know that Belgium boasts a new government since the 6th of December.

I am not kidding. After about eighteen months of governmental vacuum... well not absolute vacuum considering all the bickering, false hopes and a lot of hatred than went on and on... until King Albert said that enough is enough... which he was not even supposed to say and probably never said.

Belgium being on the brink of going bankrupt desperately needed a government... The basic problem being Flemish, the new Prime Minister is Walloon (for the first time in more than 30 years). It does not make sense. This is Belgium.

Today, it looks like Belgians loved being without a government even though they were heading straight for disaster. Now they have a government and Belgium is totally paralyzed because of a general strike (civil service, of course)... This is Belgium.

Don’t take me wrong. I do not hate Belgium. France loves general strikes and even better, general strikes in its civil service. Job security obviously allows you to disrupt the economy and even worse the everyday life of people who are not civil servants.

I have been living in Belgium for quite a few years now but Belgium never stops surprising me... which would be a great thing if I were in love with this small kingdom.

Let me tell you my last experience...

I am going to be chauvinistic of course but you all know how prejudiced I can be.

It all started because I needed a new mobile subscription and a new phone. No need for details.

When this happens in France, you go get a new subscription from a phone company and they give you a very, very nice discount on your new phone. Very, very nice!

But I am living in Belgium where there are 3 mobile phone companies - A, B and C.

I go to the first store I find - A, of course.

“I’d like to get a subscription from your company. What’s your best offer?”

“None. Very sorry. We do not have the same system you have in France.” (I do have a very strong French accent, don’t I?)

“Ok. Too bad...” (Bye, bye, new subscription and new phone... New phone and new subscription...)

“Wait a minute,” says the A company guy. “I may have a solution for you, though. It is Christmas time and we offer you a 100€ rebate if you buy a phone from us and... and only if you are a customer from company B or C, hence opening a new account in our A company and switching from them to us.”

Great! Very interesting proposal indeed. Stealing customers for 100€... Amazing!

Except that I do not have a current account in B nor C.

“This is not a problem. Not at all. You have a B store downstairs. Go there and buy a “Pay&Go card” from them. This will provide you with a B call number. Enough for us. Then we open an account for you and you get your 100€ rebate... as soon as your form gets approved. A matter of a few hours, really.”

One look at Popeye who looks as flabbergasted as me.

All right. This is Belgium, right?

I go to the B store. 

A very nice guy smiles at me and... shame on me!

“Hello. I just got to Brussels and my French phone does not work here. (Stupid French phone companies, really!) I desperately need a Pay&Go card. Can you sell one to me?”

And yes, I feel very bad.

“No problem. How long will you be staying?”

“Two days so a 10€ card should be fine.”

“There it is, Madam. How do you like Brussels?”

“Oh splendid, splendid. I love Brussels. I do.”

And no, I do not drop dead.

Besides I've had enough time to look around and there is no special offer for Christmas.

I go back to the A store with my B Pay&Go card... They need my id. I give them my id. They need my credit card... This is getting serious.

To make the story short, this is how I now have a brand new phone with a 100€ rebate and a brand new contract with the A company with a B phone number from a 10€ Pay&Go card.

I tried to tell the story to a couple of French friends, not used to life in Belgium. They looked so appalled... at my behavior maybe. I did not dare ask them...

Well, this is Belgium after all.


Family traditions never die after all. From the Spanish Civil War to Japan's tsunami...

'Bonne-Maman Ménine', Bon-Papa Matthieu and... me

One of the great moments in life is when you realize that family traditions do not hopelessly get lost.

She was known as ‘Bonne-Maman Ménine’ which was quite redundant since Bonne-Maman means ‘GrandMa’ in French but so does ‘Ménine’ in our Southern France dialect. I imagine this was the way they managed the generation gap... The grandmothers’ generation gap... at a time when people would age quite fast and die quite young. Amazing.

Well, there she was, Adeline, Mathieu’s wife and Cap de Fer’s daughter. Quite educated for her time (at a time girls did not usually go to school) since she was asked to teach school in the village during the Great War.

Even if it is hard to understand for a lot of (young) people, you have to imagine a time without phones, mostly without a radio and no tv of course...

The time is August 1945. Arfons. France.

The day is sunny. Quite warm. World War II is over, at least in Southern France. My great-grandmother is sitting down in her yard. She’s in charge of getting supper ready. She opens out a newspaper and tips a pile of stringy beans she’s supposed to take care of onto it.

Let me make a digression at this point for those of you who did not grow up in rural Southern France before and a long time after the war.

Both my great-grandparents read the local newspaper every time they could get one. After reading it, they would fold it carefully and they would put it away on a pile that was kept in a very dry place.

You see, newspapers were extremely important. They provided news of course. But they were so useful. To start a fire in the fireplace where most meals were cooked. To keep your feet dry in your clogs. To shield your chest from windy days below your smock. To protect the table while you were getting food ready. And above all... you’d use old newspapers, neatly cut in squares, when you went to the toilet.

So newspapers were read and put aside for further use. A newspaper was a very precious commodity, not be thrown away... at least not immediately.

Now let’s go back to Adeline who is bent on getting the beans ready for supper. But she is feeling restless. She does not mind working at home but she also loves to read... whatever catches her eye.

She stands up suddenly. She’s staring wide-eyed at the newspaper and she starts screaming.

“Oh my God, oh my God.” (Actually she’s so upset that she forgets her manners and she screams: “Macarel de macarel” which means in French “Oh shit”... something maybe stronger. Pardon my French.)

Her daughter (my Bonne-Maman) and her husband (Bon-Papa Mathieu) shoot out from wherever they were. From the kitchen? From the barn?

Adeline is shaking now. All over. She starts crying.

“It’s starting again. They’ve done it again,” she mumbles.


The civil war in Spain,” she screams.

Mathieu understands right away. He goes to the table, he brushes the beans away. There it is: “The fighting for Teruel is intense.”  He looks at the day and starts laughing: “Adeline, don’t worry. Come here and look.”

The newspaper had somehow survived the Second World War. It dated back to December 1937...

This story became a legend in our family. “The day ‘Bonne-Maman Ménine’ thought that the Spanish Civil War had started all over again.” It always came back to our minds whenever someone would make a mistake concerning some event either from the news or from our family life.

I never thought I would turn out like my great-grandmother. Well, never say never.

Yesterday, I got very worried because of the very strong Santa Anna winds. Swee’ Pea is currently living in Pasadena. 

He had called us a couple of times to let us know that everything was fine.

But I kept worrying because some of my American friends on Facebook were talking about what was happening there. Nowadays, news rush around the world in less than one minute and... are forgotten as easily.

First thing in the morning, I started reading some California papers online to learn how things were going there.

I was browsing through one website when I did think I was going to have a heart attack.

There it was: “Japan 8.9: Tsunami Watch For SoCal”.

“Oh no. Not again. Not again.”

The article went on: “Update: A National Weather Service tsunami warning for the L.A. coast has been downgraded to a tsunami advisory. After the jump: Boats damaged in Catalina.”

I don’t know what make me check the publishing date - Oh my God... there it was: “Fri., Mar. 11 2011 at 5:03 PM”.

Well, I know I am going to survive but I do feel kind of stupid tonight.

Dear ‘Bonne-Maman Ménine’, I never doubted I was your great-granddaughter but today, I think I have proof that “We be of one blood, ye and I.”

I don’t know why but I feel very happy about it.

*Good Luck, and Good Night*


'Bald Is Beautiful'

Last month was all about breast cancer... Posters and pink ribbons everywhere. Messages on Facebook.

Five years ago, one of my very young friends was diagnosed with breast cancer. I was just getting out from cancer #2... I mean, getting out of chemo #2. We talked a lot. She was very brave and recovered well.

A few months ago, she had great news to tell. She was pregnant. We all rejoiced. A new beginning after such a scare.

In September, she called me from Paris. Cancer was striking back and she was pregnant. Too early to give birth. Her oncologist decided to start chemo anyway. (This is how I learnt that far too many expectant mothers go through cancer and chemo during their pregnancy. So there are «special» chemos for them.)

I was worried of course. But my friend is a true fighter. She started chemo in France while her husband was working in a faraway country. Brave girl.

She called me not too long ago.

«Guess what? My hair has totally fallen out,» she said.

We had a good chuckle about it. Yes, I know it may sound strange... But this is the way we are. (And the topic of my post.)

«This means that your daughter will be more hairy than you when she’s born!» Now I feel really stupid of course... because I should have known better.

«Well, not really. She’s having chemo too, remember?» (Yes. For the past three months.)

My friend is a very pretty young woman with a beautiful and curly mane of hair. But I know she never felt bad when she lost her hair during chemo #1. She wanted so much to survive to care about it!

When they are told that cancer has struck (or worse - has struck back), most people kind of fall apart when they realize they may loose their hair, I know. And they should not. The problem is not theirs. It is in the eyes of the people they will meet.

Loosing your hair does not mean that you are sick. It means that you are fighting cancer with a treatment that is hopefully unkind towards cancer cells. Meanwhile your daily life and your physical appearance are quite disrupted. I’ve been through all this in one of my posts.

Today, I know that my friend’s daughter is about to be born. One hairless baby from one hairless mother. I also know that she will be one of the most beautiful babies I have ever seen.

Because you see, ‘Bald is beautiful.’ It may not be obvious to you but it can turn to be very beautiful when you fight such a dubious fight with all your strength, with all your heart.

I know that in our modern society, we tend to wish for perfection, physical perfection meaning for a lot of women having beautiful hair... besides long and thin legs! (By the way, do men really love to be bald?)

My friend’s baby will be unaturally hairless but so beautiful, I know.

Let me tell you a little story to help you understand how the problem of baldness from chemo or because of other health problems that cause alopecia only exists in your mind.

A while ago, French teenagers were asked to write a screenplay. It was a national competition. Its aim was to change the way we look at people with cancer.

The winners were 13 yrs old kids from the Junior High School of a very small town.

Here is a summary of their screenplay which became a one-reeler by Luc Besson.

It is quite cold and windy. Several mothers are watching their kids play in the public garden.

A young mother is holding a baby in her arms. She is wearing a silky scarf on her head.
The baby drops her pacifier. The mother bends down to pick it up. A gust of wind. Her scarf flies away.
She looks stricken but she cannot stand up to go get her scarf because the baby is crying now and she wants to calm her down.

The other women look away. They are obviously shocked and embarrassed.

A young girl is going down the slide. As soon as she is back on her feet, she runs to pick up the scarf.
She walks to the young mother.

«I found your hair,» she says with a huge smile on her face.

The young woman is hairless and looks deathly pale.

But she smiles at the little girl.
«Thank you so much, sweetie,» she says.
«You’re welcome,» the girl answers while she runs back to the slide.

All of a sudden, the other women start smiling too, looking relieved.

We then hear a voice: «Their hope lies in the way we look at them.»

This is the story that won first prize at the competition.

Do we need to wait until children set the example of what to do for us to change?

Yes, ‘Bald’ can be beautiful, my friends.

Welcome, welcome, dear baby girl to be born any second now! Your bald mother loves you so much and your father loves both of you, you hairless girls.

*Good Luck, and Good Night*


Life Is a River Filled with Memories

Lately I have been extremely busy. Quite a change, some would say!

I am a photographer. My work is very important in my life. After finally getting my professional website on the net, I’m aiming at a lot more.

Two contemporary art galleries have shown some interest in my work and I have meetings set up with their directors. For me it would be a huge break.

So I’ve been spending a lot of time sorting and checking hundreds of pictures to make sure that besides my website, I’ll be able to show interesting work and projects, interesting enough to get me into this very promising but quite closed-in world of contemporary art exhibitions.

Some days, I go crazy because there are so many pictures to check. You have no idea!

Sometimes, well-hidden among my work pictures, I discover long forgotten family pictures and my mind escapes from reality.

It happened again today...

Since it is cold and dreary outside, those pictures sent me back to warmer times, warmer and happier times, should I say.

Once upon a time we were living in a posh suburbia, west of Paris. We did not live in the poshier part but in some kind of a small village inside the  town, the way the Paris area grew throughout the centuries.

There still were fields and orchards around our home. Most of the houses in the street were delightful small houses built at the beginning of the XXth century when the street still was a country lane.

Our own home used to be a barn.

Not very far from us, a very charming brick house was standing at the heart of a huge garden (quite extraordinary being so close to Paris). Old trees, quite tall. Flowers everywhere. A very beautiful ornamental garden and a vegetable patch and an orchard... (which I saw later.)

The wisteria which framed the windows was amazing, so dense and colorful.

The first time I walked past this house, I remember I stopped to gape at it behind its gates. The wisteria was in full bloom. And there was color everywhere. Tulips, roses, and tons of flowers I didn’t know.

It did look beautiful and peaceful.

A few days later, while I was waiting for Swee’ Pea to come out from his new school to walk back home with him, a woman my age came up to me with a big smile on her face.

She already knew who I was (quite easy I guess to spot a newcomer) and she told me her daughter and my son were in the same grade.

She looked delighted. She smiled a lot. She laughed a lot. I felt instantly that I no longer was an outsider.

The children came out. Before we parted in order to feed two hungry mouths, she invited me to come over to her place so that we’d have more time getting acquainted.

«You won’t have any problem finding my house. A wisteria is growing wild on its walls.»

I felt suddenly too shy to let her know that I had already noticed it and that I had fallen in love with it.

It only took us a couple of hours to become best friends, best friends and sisters for life until her very untimely death.

She was so much like her house. Very warm and cosy. I spent so many long hours with her there, basking in her enduring fondness.

She was a very gifted gardener, an extraordinary cook and she made wonderful cakes. She also loved to paint. And her watercolors were beautiful.

She tried to teach me at least the fundamentals but she gave up (because I was too much of a hedonist, I guess. Happiness without effort.)
Actually other things captivated my attention and since her flowers and her food were there for me to enjoy...

The truth was that I admired her very much. She was so great at what she was doing.
The truth was that we were extremely different. Those very differences contributed to our extraordinary friendship, I’m sure.

Today, I found those digitized pictures which had been hiding (and forgotten) in a folder called ‘H1’ because this was the first time I was using my Hasselblad. Such a long time ago.

Outside it is cold and dreary. Flowers are blooming on my desktop. Her flowers and her wisteria on her house.

*Good Luck, and Good Night*


Happy Birthday, JayCee!

Another year, another birthday! It makes sense, doesn’t it.

Our son turned 32 yesterday. I loved it because I don’t mind aging so I tend to think other people don’t mind aging either.

I imagine that this year, JayCee (Swee’Pea) had a very happy birthday considering the way his Facebook page started to fill up quite early with lots of best wishes from all over the world...

Birthdays are fun... and sometimes not so fun when you are thousands of miles apart.

We should be used to be apart for birthdays... We barely manage to spend Christmas together... So just imagine what happens for our birthdays!

I don’t know why but this year, it was harder than the other years. Well, I know why. One of JayCee’s friend is expecting twins and she was supposed to give birth this week. So we’ve been talking about babies a lot.

Our “baby” was born 32 years ago! And we never saw the years go by from the moment he literally sprang up from my womb till the moment he left quite a long time ago... Luckily when you think about it!

Our son never was the kind of person who would have enjoyed to stay put in the the same place and close to his parents all his life. (Well, there was a time when we did think it would be fun because we were his parents and he was our only son.)

Lucky for him, I think we made it easy for him to go away... His dad reminds me from time to time the day when our Jaycee decided he wanted to go down south on his own... He was 2. Yes, 2.

The cutest little boy ever. He called his grandmother and told her it was too cold in the Paris area. She answered she’d come and pick him up. He’d spend a couple of weeks down South and we’d go there to drive him back home.

He got ready to go. We bought a very small yellow cardboard suitcase for him to take a few books and games on board... We packed another (real) suitcase with his help. He was getting so excited. And we were secretly thinking that at the last moment, he’d chicken out! After all, he was 2. He had never left us before. And he didn’t know his grandmother this well at the time.

I’ll never forget the way he kissed us goodbye at the airport. I’ll never forget the way he grabbed his grandmother’s hand and waved us goodbye before walking away to the plane... I was devastated of course! My baby! Going away, so soon and... so happy to leave us!

Well, this is the way it has been ever since! He went back down South many times. He started traveling on his own as soon as he was old enough to be a UM. So many times that he was often invited to fly in the cockpit with the pilots.

He was 12 when he left home to spend 3 months in Canada, going to school there. And then there was Ireland and Germany and Canada again and the States and Australia and so many remote places... for weeks, months and years!

People say to us: “What? You let him go when he was 2?”

Yes, we did and we are more than happy now that we did give him this feeling of freedom and of safety. He was free to travel whenever he felt like it but he knew he was welcome home as soon as he wanted to come home. He also knew we did not spend our time waiting for him while wringing our hands in despair!  He knew we loved him very dearly, I imagine.

And no, we did not buy a dog to fill the big gap at home whenever he was away!

This year was different though. We decided to call him and wish him a very happy birthday... and beat all his friends to it!

Skype is a wonderful invention... because when he turned his camera on, we were holding a candle which we blew out together (well, virtually on his side!). Corny, maybe a little. Funny, a lot!


Then we toasted him with our best champagne! 

Kind of mean I know! But after all, it was also our day, the day “our son” was born... 32 years ago!

Happy birthday, JayCee!

*Good Luck, and Good Night*


Do You Like to Be Alone? I Do. A Lot.

Who knows what this beautiful girl was thinking about? (Believe me. She was beautiful.)

She also was very much alone amidst so many people on the beach. She did not look sad nor lost. She was looking at the sea and she was dreaming. Period.

The weather was delightful. Very warm. 5:00 p.m. On the 23rd of October. Quite wonderful, I know.

I was feeling elated when we started our walk on the beach. We were having such a nice time in Barcelona.

Those past few months, Popeye has been going through real bad times and he was getting ready to brave even worse weather.

Barcelona was such a peaceful touchdown for us. We had one whole week-end to try to get our breath and to restore our inner strength. Together.

Barcelona was an excellent choice. Popeye has been there quite a lot ever since it started changing into a very modern, huge, wealthy and ebullient city. The last time I had been to Barcelona? Oh well... Swee’ Pea was 5. So let’s say more than 25 years...

At the time, Barcelona was a little bit dreary. It was a port more than a city. I remember visiting the Miró museum and Gaudi’s Park Güell and Sagrada Familia...

Popeye loves Barcelona and of course I fell in love with the new Barcelona. We did a lot of things in the few hours we were to spend there together. It was fun and delightful. We walked around a lot which for us is mandatory to get to know a city. 

Quite late on Sunday afternoon, we decided to go take a walk on the beach after a storm.

This is when and where I noticed this beautiful girl, so lost in reverie  that she was totally oblivious to people around her.

I still had not really made up my mind about what I’d be doing during the following week while Popeye would be attending a seminar a few hours away (by car) from Barcelona.

I was supposed to fly back to Paris and then go to Brussels... and all of a sudden, the answer was loud and clear. I was going to stay in Barcelona, by myself. In a city where I did not know one single person. In a city I did not know my way around...

You see, I am a lot like the girl on the beach. I love being around people but I need to be totally on my own from time to time. When I saw her, she reminded so much of my own life.

I like loneliness. I have to, of course. My husband is away a lot. But after spending so many years in my beloved Tertres, I know I love to be alone without feeling lonely. Actually I love being on my own. Maybe because I know it won’t last too much... From one to three/four weeks at the most.

I am so used to being on my own that I get through life quite easily. Just like the girl on the beach, I can spend hours just watching the sea (when in Brittany). Lucky me with enough time on my hands to waste a few hours doing nothing else but watching and dreaming.

Except that I do not feel I am wasting my time. Something new and usually great, something interesting anyway comes out from those moments of intense loneliness. It always does. Ideas. Projects. Decisions.

All of which would not have come through nor to my mind in the hustle and bustle of my daily life. My normal daily life, I mean. The life with my husband, my son or my friends.

Of course, being alone because one’s husband or wife is away or gone is totally different from choosing to be alone because one needs to be completely alone.

I hope the girl on the beach was lonely because it was her choice. All of a sudden, it hits me. Maybe she was downright lonely and unhappy.

Well, tonight, all by myself at Les Tertres, I am not lonely nor unhappy. I do need time to be on my own. Lots of things to do, lots of things worth thinking about, lots of books to read... Lots of freedom!

Some people need their beauty sleep. I need my beauty loneliness, I guess.

*Good Luck, and Good Night*


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*


Chance Encounters in the Cimetière Montparnasse and its neighborhood

What do I do in Paris when fall turns summery? Something that may sound strange to many people.

I take a walk in a graveyard. 

Today was such a beautiful autumnal day. Sunny and cool.

Life hasn’t been very kind lately, sort of. I have been feeling down - a lot since my coming back from Brittany... I spend a lot of time inside wherever I am - our house in Belgium or our son’s apartment in Paris... which is quite a shame, I know. I mean, being in Paris and spending my days reading on the sofa.

Today was such a beautiful autumnal day. Sunny and cool.

I had to go outside. Where to? Well, not too far away anyway. To the Montparnasse Cemetery. One of my favorite places in Paris. Very peaceful and quiet, planted with trees and decked with flowers.

I get there by subway. Only two metro stations. Nice and fast.

I did not have any tickets left. I needed to buy some since I’m much too old to leap over the gate... Which meant that I’d have to face a grumpy counter clerk. Counter clerks are not always grumpy but most of them are not very friendly and I like it so much when my smile gets a big smile in return.

Good news. You no longer buy tickets from a counter clerk. They now have nice and friendly machines to deliver the tickets. 

Bad news. There is something I hate more than a grumpy clerk - a machine supposed to deliver tickets. I am getting so partially sighted that as soon as I learned I’d have to go through the ordeal of the machine, I braced myself up and got ready to jump over the gate. (This was just a bad dream except that it truly was very hard getting the right ticket from a very stupid machine.)

Then a very sweet voice said to me:

“Let me help you, please.”

The girl from the RATP counter who had just told me she no longer sold tickets.

“How many tickets do you need? Would 10 be ok?”

I was flabbergasted. She very deftly thumped away on the machine. She  took my 20€ note (with a smile) and got 10 tickets from the device plus a lot of change, which was nice too.

“There you go. Have a good day.”

What do you do then? You smile her your thanks, and off you go, feeling a lot happier that when you woke up this morning, not knowing what you’d be doing even though it was so sunny outside.

The metro was empty. I sat down even though the Montparnasse Cemetery station was less than 10 mns away. Only to make up for the days when we are squashed together like sardines in a can (almost every day).

On my way outside, I stopped to listen to some people who were talking about Belgium.

“Do you know that in Flanders, they still speak French? They say they speak Flemish but they still speak French, all of them. Because who would speak Flemish after all?”

“No kidding!” (That’s me but not aloud. A few delightful minutes while I had a quiet laugh. Isn’t it better to look on the bright side of life?)

I had brought the map of the graveyard but I got lost once more. That’s what happens when you don’t know your right from your left. You get lost. This is not tragic in the Montparnasse Cemetery since the Tour Montparnasse is a good beacon.

Off I went. As usual. I had my camera with me. Of course. My afternoon in the graveyard went pretty much the same way as every time I go there.

One grave attracts my attention. Then another one and another one and another one... Three hours later and I’m still in the graveyard, still taking pictures, still looking around.

We are getting close to All Saints’ Day. The weather is so nice that lots of people are busy cleaning graves and bringing flowers. Lots of gardeners (I imagine you can call them gardeners after all) are busy cleaning the parts of the graveyard that are more or less abandoned for many reasons... mostly because the Montparnasse Cemetery is a very old graveyard.

I ran into one of of those gardeners. He was sweeping a very posh grave. Since I was taking pictures, he asked me if I wanted him to stop while... Of course not. I wanted him in the picture because I did not know that there were people in charge of sweeping up dead leaves from the graves, literally sweeping up.

We started talking. He told me that he was in charge of sweeping this grave and that it was very expensive.

His employer charged the family over 800€ (1.200$) per month to make sure the grave would always be sparkling clean.

“You know,” he said. “Rich people don’t care about their family. They don’t want to spend time in the graveyard. But they want the graves to look nice. So I spend my time here and there taking care of rich people’s family graves.”

I was a little bit surprised. But when you think about it, why not? They pay and this nice man gets work to do.

Wrong. He looked at me with a grin.

“Do you know who gets rich in the end? The undertakers. If you want to get rich, Madame, you have to become an undertaker.”

The guy was not totally wrong. In our village in Brittany, we met the undertaker at Henri’s funeral service. He started his business twenty years ago and he’s doing quite well, thank you. In our village, there are up to 5 funerals every week.

I don’t think my life dream is to become an undertaker though. I left the guy to his sweeping, his 800€ sweeping which he was doing very seriously after all.

And I resumed my walking around. It was turning to be quite an interesting afternoon.

From grave to grave, I ended up witnessing a real funeral. My first one in this graveyard. Luckily, I got there at the end which was very interesting. Ten or twelve people who had come together from Belgium not in a limo but in a minibus that was as close to a limousine as it could.

No tears. A few people were grinning.

With my camera, I have a great excuse to hover around graves. So I kept close until the end when they were ready to leave. Listening.

Someone said with a cheerful voice: “Well, don’t you think this calls for a  glass of champagne? Let’s go to my place.”

They all got into the minibus and left right away.

The undertaker and her employees did not look appalled at all. A matter of habit, I imagine.

It was getting late and the graveyard was supposed to close at 6. On my way in, I had noticed a couple of interesting crosses and their shadows worth a picture or two or three.

A woman was sitting on a nearby grave. She was smoking a cigarette.

Sitting on a tomb and smoking a cigarette. Quite puzzling.

She was beautiful. No longer young but very classy and beautiful. She was sitting close to a very famous grave. A contemporary and very famous writer’s grave.

Three people walked by. Three very ordinary people, very simple people. She asked them: “Do you come here often? Someone has stolen her picture.”

The very unlucky people she had chosen to vent her anger were looking  extremely unsettled by the outburst. Yes, they had noticed but...

I got closer and closer and closer. The woman sounded very disturbed and unhappy. She was saying that she was to be buried in the famous writer’s grave. She said many things that were very distressing, so upsetting that the persons she was talking to left as soon as they could.

By then, I was there, ready to listen to her. And we started talking. She told me she was a painter. She talked about her relationship with the buried writer. She said that she had spent 17 years in a mental home which had destroyed her belief in her paintings.

She said that she was becoming quite famous again and that she could not face fame. That fame had destroyed the “famous writer”. That she was feeling devastated. That it was so terrible for her to be alive and sitting so close to her future grave. She said that she was feeling more dead than alive.
I then decided to connect with her. I told her that I was living on borrowed time.

She looked at me. She smiled at me and then started to cry again. We talked and talked. It was amazing because I did believe that she had been through hell. I also felt very deeply that she was an incredible person without even knowing who she really was besides being the “famous writer” ex-daughter-in-law, a fact I did not question by the way.

I did not have reservations about what she was telling me even though she was quite sparing of details. Basically we talked about life, about creativity, about being women in a artistic world filled with men, about so many things that seemed to pacify her.

The bell rang. Time to leave the graveyard. We walked together to the door.

I was exhausted.

She then said she wanted to see my work. I told her to check my professional website. Since I did not have a card nor a piece of paper in my backpack, she hesitantly searched her purse and came up with her own card.

She made me promise that I’d call her. I had "to come and visit [her] one of these days since [she lives] so close to the cemetery.”

As soon as I got home, I "googled" her which means that maybe I did not trust her totally. It was so easy to find her. She really is a famous painter. Everything she told me is true.

She was so extremely beautiful when she was younger and so talented before she broke down. So incredible that someone so gifted would be crying in a graveyard because she thought that she was more dead than alive.

I hope that she’ll remember what we talked about. I still don’t know if it is wise to keep in touch with her. Our encounter was magic and maybe it’s best to keep it this way.

Today was a very good day. Great day for taking pictures. Wonderful day for meeting people.

I love it when one of my favorite graveyards fills up with the living... I love it when I start liking the living better than the dead.

*Good Luck, and Good Night*


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*