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  • Writer's pictureMike Gould

A Very French death - of Thérèse, Lionel and a disappearing way of life.

Confessions of a Francophile

French cottage in the Manche
Early shot of the house before the winds of change

I have just returned from our house in Normandy. Usually at this point in any conversation when our ownership of a second home in France comes up, I get my retaliation in first, mentioning the 30 years or so of visits to the Manche, how I once helped run school exchanges there, the modest, rustic nature of the house & ongoing problems with the drainage.

Hey, I did French as part of my degree & my mother taught it. I'm practically French. Or so it goes. I feel I need to mention all these provisos as a way of denying I'm really a middle-class, two-home sort of person. Possibly the worst type, one who owns a rural, French cottage with all the bucolic associations that brings to mind.

But there is no denying that essential truth. That we're lucky enough to own two homes at a time when none of our adult children own even one. The generational cards life dealt my parents which allowed them to buy a huge house in the commuter belt (before it was called that) on modest salaries and which also permitted my wife and I to buy our first flat relatively easily, haven't fallen quite as positively for our children. The idea one once had that life would get better for each generation, and that any social or economical evolution would be positive, if gradual, seems to no longer apply in the uncertainties of the age.

Winds of change

I wondered about this while we were in Normandy last week, repairing fences blown down in the Autumn storms & not fixing our leaking roof. Dotted across the Manche modest dwellings can still be snapped up for 60-70k euros. How our own children would jump at the chance if they lived here. But of course, they wouldn't. It's not easy to sustain a rural life even in a more populated UK, but for the French, not least the young, very few want to live in isolated rural communities. The old certainties of employment in agriculture in France if not dead are at least undergoing profound changes. Whilst our local restaurant was crammed with workers, few were below 40-45 years of age. In the fields around our house, other changes seem to have crept up almost unobserved. In many of the pastures where cattle grazed or in the fields dedicated to a variety of crops, maize is now grown. On the flatter country lanes, the tall spiky limbs obscure the view, creating a wall which is both literal and emotional, denying the gentle undulations of the landscape their moment in the sun. Once the serried ranks of corn would have been confined to warmer climes further south in the Vendee or Charente, for example, but a combination of excellent growing conditions in Normandy and no doubt a more saleable product (suitable for animal and human consumption) have led to France being Europe's largest maize producer. Whilst it would be wrong to say that the old ways no longer endure - the typical Normandy picture of cattle or sheep grazing under apple trees is still fairly common - the (warmer) winds of change are on the way.

New for old

When it comes to property, it has long been the case that the French generally prefer to buy new. With strong incentives both in terms of tax and ecologically, it makes sense - 'though I guess 'new builds' are pretty popular amongst younger families in the UK, too. But it feels like a bigger generational shift in France. Perhaps because the older farming traditions have

lasted longer in a country which is much less populated per square kilometre than our own, now that they are under threat the contrast is more telling.

When we first bought our property in 2008, we met our lovely elderly neighbours. Both retired, he dedicated to his vegetable garden, her to the church & knowing the price of everything, they kept on referring to their 'big move'. From Rennes or perhaps Caen? we wondered. No, 'from Lengronne', a village a mile from ours, they told us. They have both died in the last three years. Her first of all, him not long after, of 'un coeur brisé', other neighbours told us. They used to play cards every week with their best friends in the village. On their joint grave, their daughter has had inscribed a set of playing cards. Neither of them had ever been abroad - and Madame did not know there was a Channel tunnel. Their lives, largely dictated by the seasons and the neat management of their kitchen garden, were clearly 'simple', whatever that really means. Then there's us, with our two home ownership, agonising about the Middle East, the rise in the mortgage rate, arguing over which must-see box set to watch. Our busy, important lives, conscious all the time of the slow death of the Earth and our own mortality.

Ghosts in the lanes

I thought of Thérèse and Lionel as I struggled to repair the fence bordering their property. The vegetable patch is now a plain rectangle of grass, the house tenanted by a retiree from a city, who couldn't afford the rising rents. Lionel would have advised me on the fence repair, and invited us in for aperitifs. Our other neighbour Michel, long gone, too, would have brought out his frankly illegal hedge cutter to cut a swathe through the brambles I have neglected since the Autumn storm. Their ghosts occupy the narrow lanes and the muddy tracks, surrounding our house. Their ways, perhaps closer to my grandparents' than my own parents (even if they were of the latter's age) are vanishing. I think it is in part due to this that farmers' drove their tractors into Paris and blocked the motorways. Even if the alleged reasons were cheap imports and the cost of living, it's clear to me that even if not acknowledged, they were fighting against the dying of a different light. Perhaps a rose-tinted one, perhaps one seen best through a couple of glasses of Calvados, but a light shining on a memory of a country and its founding fathers. People like Therese, Lionel and Michel. It was our privilege to know them and in my own writing to resurrect them, at least temporarily, from that great cider house in the sky.

When researching some aspects of this article, I came across the provenance of the name 'Thérèse'. Whilst its origins are uncertain, one suggestion is that it comes from the Greek 'to harvest or reap'. Whilst it was Lionel who did most of the harvesting, it seems entirely apt that her name was so linked to the land, and to the time and the season.

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