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*