Image by finofilka via FlickrA friend sent me over a collection of photographs of rural France in 'the old days' and it came to me that when I first arrived, I was meeting people who had been through some of these hard times illustrated in the black and white photographs. The old people.
Didier told me about his life....walking six kilometres to school - after helping his father on his round with a cart collecting the milk churns. Gaston remembers Didier, a little wiry boy struggling to get the heavy churns up into the cart while his father drank eau de vie with Gaston's stepfather in the house. Gaston was no better off. His father had died young and his mother wore out a succession of husbands, while the boy took the brunt of the hard work.
Didier remembers how his parents scraped the pennies to send him to the private school...not what you think of today, but the catholic school as opposed to the godless atheism of the state school...because no employer would take on a workman who didn't send his children to the private school and who wasn't seen at mass on sundays.
'Well' says Didier 'you didn't have to be seen from start to finish...they were all too busy eyes front on the priest....but God help you if you were late out of the bar in time to be seen as they all turned round.'
He started work - paid work - when he was fourteen, on a farm some five kilometres from his home, helping with the rough work and sleeping on straw in the barn. Poor little boy....but that was normal life in his youth.
Edith told me about helping her mother when she was young, going to collect laundry from the 'big houses' and washing it in the pond just up the road - no streams in that partof the commune - where the sharp eyed neighbours would be quick to spot if a woman had no bloody clouts to wash, indicating a pregnancy.
She was apprenticed to a seamstress, and would accompany her as she moved from house to house on her annual round, living there while she made the clothes the family required. She would share a bed with her employer in these houses, a child being dislodged to make way for them, and they would eat with the family. These were the days when the women did not have the right to sit at the table at mealtimes. The men would be served and the women would take their plates and eat propped up against the chimneypiece.
By the very nature of their work, travelling from house to house in a period where women were expected to be sedentary, seamstresses were popularly supposed to be flighty and Edith's future mother in law did not at all approve of her son's choice of bride an opinion only reinforced when she turned up at her newly married son's house at lunchtime and found the couple eating together at the table. All her suspicions of her daughter in law's unworthiness were confirmed in one glance.
During the war, when her husband was away for five years as a prisoner of the Germans, Edith decided to keep their farm going on her own. Her mother in law was always popping up to see if she could catch Edith with another man, but Edith's was a love match and she wanted no one but her husband.
To avoid gossip, she took on a maid to do the housework and the dairy work and took on the outside work herself, walking her cattle from one end of the commune to the other to use their widely scattered holdings, taking a hay crop from the verges, pruning the vines, hoeing the sugar beet....out in all winds and weathers. She survived on eggs and cheese, selling everything she could to have a nest egg ready for her husband's return and, to her mother in law's horror, she succeeded, even buying more land as more and more farms went to the wall in the absence of the men to run them.
The maid amused herself by climbing the tree in the courtyard to be able to see the German soldiers bathing naked in the pond up the road.
Papy was another small boy enured to work. He explained the local drinking habit to me by saying that when you got up when it was dark to go out to the cow byre, a glass of eau de vie in your stomach gave you the nerve to get started for the day and by the time you came in for breakfast, a good couple of glasses of wine with the bread and fat pork for your breakfast was very welcome.
He was lucky, he was working for his father and inherited the farm and vineyards, not sent out to an employer, like Didier, who had to make his own way in the world, and did so, very successfully.
Looking at those photographs...men ploughing behind oxen, men and women moving in gangs over the fields singling the beet, the bread oven being stacked with wood, the women washing in the cold water of streams and ponds...gives the lie to the phrase 'the good old times'.
Then as now, life is good if you have the money to have other people do the hard work. I wonder if there is a photographic book showing the child workers of today making the goods we buy without thinking of their origins.