All the stuff you never knew you needed to know about life in rural France.....and all the stuff the books and magazines won't tell you.

Thursday, 30 September 2010

It happened on the Ile de Re......A French Love Story

Plage ile de réImage by the yellowrider via Flickr

I am going to tell you a French love story.

A few years ago, a friend was spending August on the Ile de Re, that smart playground of the elite of France off the Atlantic coast.

She and her husband had bought their fisherman's cottage years before the island had become fashionable, but this was the first time she had come in August, as her husband had always preferred to take their main holiday in July, with at least one of their children.
But her husband had died the previous year and as one of her many small epiphanies of liberation she had decided to take this years' holiday in August, and on her own.

She had had a wonderful time...getting up when she felt like it, sitting up late to read, walking the beaches at twilight and eating what she wanted, when she wanted, either at home or in a restaurant.

One evening, she was annoyed to find that she did not have the beach to herself.
Ahead of her, stumping along, was a silhouette.
A man.
She resolved not to be put off by his presence and carried on walking, although her lithe pace brought her up with him faster than expected.
She was about to pass, not in the mood to exchange the normal words of polite recognition, when she caught a glimpse of his profile and called out to him, almost despite herself,
'But it is never you, Jean!'
And he, smiling, replied
'And is it you, Jeanne?'

They had not seen each other since their young romance had been blighted over forty years before but, as she said, it was not just their eyes that recognised each other on that beach on the Ile de Re.

They had been at teacher training college together in those pre-war days.
She, stepdaughter of a railwayman who had married her mother after the death of  her husband in the First World War.
He, son of a bourgeois family from a small town.
They had fallen in love and wished to marry.....but there was an obstacle.


His widowed mother controlled the purse strings and she would not permit her son to marry not only 'beneath him' socially but also to a girl who brought no dowry with her.

There was a further obstacle.


Mother was devout, regular in her Church attendance and rigid in her observance of religious practices.
What used to be called a 'grenouille de benitier'....literally a frog in the holy water stoup.
The free thinking daughter of one of those atheistic railwaymen was an unthinkable wife for her son.

Mother won.
Jean gave up his dream of marrying Jeanne.
They danced, for the first and last time, at their graduation, and parted, as they thought, for ever.

She started teaching, married and had three children.
When I first knew her she had retired as headmistress of the Maternelle, which caters for the three to six year olds in the French school system, and by the greetings she exchanged when out in the town it was clear that most of the population had passed through her hands in their time.

Her methods were brisk, it appeared, and her response to the occasional complaint by concerned parents that 'certain things' were happening in the playground would probably traumatise modern educationalists.
She would line up the little boys against one wall, command them to drop their shorts and underpants and then line up the little girls opposite, explaining that this....lifting a small penis with a pencil...was the only difference they needed to know about at this stage of their lives and that having received this information anyone removing their knickers on school premises in future would be severely dealt with.

Years after parting from Jean, she had read in a newspaper that he had become one of the deputy maires of a large town, but that was the only thing she knew about him....until their meeting on the beach.

As they talked, sitting on the low wall behind the beach, he told her that he too, had been a teacher, had married another of the girls from the teacher training who satisfied his mother's criteria...and that they too had had three children. His wife had died five years earlier.
She had inherited a house on the Ile de Re, and he had been holidaying there for years....but always in August.

Jean and Jeanne made a very happy couple. They both kept their own houses and moved from one to another.
They took foreign holidays...something she had always longed to do....and they had albums of the photographs he took of their travels and of the plants and flowers in which they both delighted.

He also started to keep a journal.
Every day he would write up their activities and the thoughts that occurred to him and every day he would also write part of the story of the years since he had been forced to part from her all those years ago, so that she could share the history she had missed.
They did not marry, so as not to change the arrangements they and their spouses had made for their childrens' inheritances.

Eventually, after some years, his health deteriorated.
He doggedly used the exercise bicycle suggested by his doctor in order to reduce weight, but it exhausted him to no avail.
Jeanne nursed him through his final weeks, in her house, until he died.

The day after his death, one of the daughters arrived with a hired van to take his possessions.
After all, he and Jeanne were not married. She had no legal claim on anything he owned.

The exercise bicycle....the clothes...the books....the photographic albums......and the journal.

His hymn to Jeanne.

After all, as his daughter said, the exercise books containing the journal been bought by her father, so they were now legally part of his estate and his family would decide what to do with them.

I told you that this was a French love story.

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  1. Pity that adult children forget all decency when it comes to love, inheritances, etc. That is one reason I have little contact with my extended family now.

    I once had a lawyer who did estates and also defended criminals tell me that he would rather deal with someone accused of a crime than watch "nearest and dearest" bicker over inheritances...He had good cause to say this, unfortunately.

  2. e..we have examples close to home as well...

  3. So, Fly, as a matter of curiosity, what happened to Jeanne following that debacle? Did she survive happily?

    I hope so...Broken hearts are difficult to mend.

  4. Money seems to bring out the worst in people. But couldn't she have hidden or 'lost' the books?

  5. Oh what a sad ending...a beautifully told story Fly xx

  6. So sad that the loving, patient, gently generous spirit of the father was not passed on to the children. I suspect that, alas, that is not just a French tale...

  7. Such a lovely story but with not the happiest of endings. Why are there not more thoughtful people in this world. Inheritance's cause so much sadness and bickering. Diane

  8. e, to me, the worst thing was that she accepted it all with resignation and it summed up a lot about the differences in French and British attitudes.
    In law, the daughter was right....but someone British would never have just let her take the photographs and the journal...they would have disappeared. But even a feisty woman like Jeanne let them go...because that was the law.

    Mark in Mayenne, well I'm damn sure I would have done, but, as I said to e above this submission, resignation, whatever one calls it, to law was characteristic of people of her generation.

    Ayak, yes, a sad grubby ending, I'm afraid.

    Steve, no all too common.
    Like e I knew a lawyer who specialised in contested wills and he said the behaviour of those involved would make your hair curl.

    Diane, the mean mindedness of it shocked me....and to hear Jeanne explaining to me that
    the daughter had the right to act as she did was heartbreaking.

  9. What a truly tragic story, and how beautifully told, Fly. One of your best ever, I think. At least the vile daughter couldn't take away Jeanne's memories of her husband.

    Many years ago we were involved in dealing with wills, and were totally amazed at what happened the moment a person took their last breath - or in some cases even before. The phone never stopped ringing with the dear near ones wanting to know: Is there a will? How much do we get? How soon can we have it? One relative broke into the house of the deceased and removed every item in it before any other relatives could get there.

    My own relatives stole my father's legacy to my children.

    But it's one thing to snatch furniture and money, completely beyond belief to take irreplaceable sentimental items.

    And being legal doesn't make something right. :(

  10. nodamnblog, it is the mean minded spirit of it that sickens you say, legal is one thing, right is another.

    Wills do bring out the worst in people.
    As do powers of attorney in unscrupulous hands.

  11. What a lovely story, Fly. Shame it had such an unfortunate ending, shame that the daughter didn't acknowledge the book as her father's gift to Jeanne, and shame that Jeanne couldn't get to keep a precious keepsake.

    As you say, it's mean-minded and petty.

  12. Sarah, I did ask her about keeping the book and she just said that that was how the law was and there was nothing she could do about it.
    His children hadn't seemed to resent her while she was looking after their father, she said, I thought, I just bet not....

    He was a lovely man and told me so much about how politics works in the big town scene - always with a dry smile as he described the manoeuvrings and back scratchings, but most of all he made Jeanne really happy.

  13. it is amazing how mean people can be. We have a family member removing all of my inlaws resources. The schemes are mind boggling. We have not been able to stop it.
    I have a friend who raised a lot of money, built and ran an animal shelter. It was a wonderful warm, spotlessly clean, hopeful place. I was there when the state inspector came by and said it was the best in our state. The money mostly came from one of her friends who was wealthy. After a few years the board of directors fired my friend and proceeded to ruin the place's finances.

    I had bought as a gift, 3 large scrapbooks which my mother spent hours organizing years of clippings and pasting them neatly in. After the firing, my friend was devastated and was upset that she had forgotten the books, which held the record of all her hard work.
    I went in, and when no one was looking, retrieved the books. At the time, I was paid for web and photo work for the shelter. I was fired for taking the shelter's books "surreptitiously".
    I've loved that word ever since.

  14. Zuleme, if these people put as much effort into their own businesses as they do into robbing others they would be rich without the need to steal and lie.
    I'd be surreptitious in the same circumstances, too!

  15. I hope the daughter runs across her own kind throughout her life, especially in moments of pain.

  16. Pueblo girl, it takes a lot to get through the carapace of self satisfied types like her, but I'll be hoping along with you.

  17. Hi, nice blog & good post. You have beautifully maintained it,Its really helpful for me, hope u have a wonderful day & awaiting for more new post. Keep Blogging!

  18. Just wondering, surely Jean had the right to give the books to Jeanne during his lifetime? I know that this does not always apply, nor to all one's worldly goods, but I imagine that it would in this situation? (I doubt the books had any intrinsic value)

    I'm just thinking firstly, that as Jean I would have given the books to Jeanne, and second that anyone who turned up at my door with a van the day after my beloved died would get sent away to telephone to make an appointment for next week. Cheek!

  19. Mark in Mayenne, yes I'm sure that he could have done...I suppose it just didn't cross his mind.

    I think the daughter called with the van in order to take advantage of Jeanne while she was in the first shock of his death.

  20. I was reading thinking, "That Fly is a romantic underneath it all", then the ending like a slap. No matter what age, children can have a hard time accepting a parent's new partner - how sad that the laws encourage them to stay selfish. Sigh - the more I learn of the way things go around here, the more I understand why the place can't progress.

  21. Amy, that's how it is in France...the idyll ends in a slap.
    O.K. the children of the first relationship don't like a 'replacement'...but there's no need to be uncivilised...except that deaths in a family seem almost inevitably to show the worst part of peoples' characters.

    As to progress...all the hopes people had that Sarkozy would change things have proved what now?

  22. Real nice story, well written. Spotting perfidy perfectly

  23. ile de re...plenty of practice, that's what, where it comes to perfidy!

  24. You're exactly right regarding the "extra protein," Fly...

    I should probably translate cafard, but most people already surmise...

  25. With a few exceptions, it has been my experience that people always get ugly over an estate and that those who actually cared for the dying benefit the least monetarily.
    Entitled relatives will gladly pick over the bones as the grieving survivor walks away with dignity.
    Let this be a lesson to us all, revise your will, today.
    X David, NYC

  26. David McGrievy, I sometimes think you can be grateful when the aggro only starts after the death...
    You're right about getting your will straight...make sure it goes to the right person.

  27. So sad. :-(
    I'm sorry that I can't be too sympathetic towards her tho'... she should have held on for dear life to what she knew to be rightfully hers. I would not have given it up so easily.
    but that's me...

  28. Clippy Mat, damn right she should...but it is the French mentality to knuckle under.
    Not mine...or yours!