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.

Sunday, 10 April 2011

Another local landmark gone...

Jardin Francais - French gardens, in VillandryImage by Matthieu Aubry. via Flickr
Not so much the physical landscape, but the personal one.

Alain e mailed me to say that The Poisoner....better known under that nickname than his own...has died at the age of 91.

And with The Poisoner dies another part of my past in France.

He was the neighbour of a friend in the second village I moved to....and, through the tales of Alain and his wife, I discovered that he was part of local folklore.....a person whose sayings and doings were discussed over a game of cards or a drink in the bar.

He and his wife lived in a state of mutual detestation......but he, typical of a man of his epoch, assumed superiority and dominance.
He spent every daylight moment in his garden and in the big field alongside where he cultivated his vegetables and a few rows of vines.....expecting his wife to assist him by holding implements and carrying or wheeling anything heavy, under a continual fire of criticism and sarcasm.

It was a wonder to me that she hadn't murdered him years before, but thanks to Edith and Alice, of the generation before that of The Poisoner, I had learned to understand the nature of those gender roles and attitudes of pre war rural France which ensured his survival.

He continually complained that his wife had no respect for him....she even laid a place for herself at the table at mealtimes, rather than eating whatever was left over after he had finished, standing by the a dutiful wife should.
When, greatly daring, Alain enquired how he countered this act of rebellion the reply was swift and sure..

I take my plate and glass to the dining room ...leaving her in the kitchen..... and if it gives her two tables to clear up, and a lot of running about to get me this or that then that's her problem. She should know her place.

He was no more pleasant with neighbours and passers by.
Women would hear him calling them whores of the worst description because they wore lipstick - or, utmost horror - trousers; men would learn interesting facts about their parentage and their means of making a living.
But no one counter seemed as though he was an accepted of the inevitable unpleasantnesses of life..... and as he refused to participate in any part of village life at least the unpleasantness was confined to a small corner of the commune.

Alain and his wife managed to live alongside without incident because Alain, after long service as a local school teacher, was on the council...and The Poisoner took care not to look for trouble in that direction.
He was unpleasant...but not completely stupid.

He never voted.
Rumour had it that as far as he was concerned the right wing Front National were a bunch of leftist pansies....while as for the rest!

Of the two local rags he took the one favoured by the bigots....not because he was a believer, but because it was good for the death notices which gave him great delight, commenting on how he had outlived yet another person he had known since their days on the school bench together.
Preferably so commenting to the relict of the deceased.
At the funeral.

Inevitably, he detested foreigners.
Having eaten a superb dish of rabbit at Alain's house, I asked him for the source of his supply.
The Poisoner.
Not a gift, you all the local guys, The Poisoner's pricing system was to check the price of rabbits in the local markets as reported in the newspaper, and charge accordingly.
Alain would see if he could buy me a couple.

The request was put...and was refused with contumely.
How could even Alain, suspect liberal as he was, expect The Poisoner to so lower himself as to sell anything to a foreigner?
He wanted no dealings with them.

So I got my rabbits from Didier, who had the same pricing policy but no contumely.

Later, as the British started to move in in numbers, The Poisoner excelled himself by knocking a young English woman off her bike, by shoving the handle of his rake into the wheels as she passed his field.
Alain remonstrated with him, to no avail.

What was the government about to let these foreigners into France...buying up houses and putting up prices...
(The Poisoner, it should be noted, did not have an old house to sell and was thus excluded from the property boom which was at that time filling the mattresses to bursting point.)

Weren't you worried her husband might come round and have a go at you?

What?  No chance! He's in England...probable seeing some other woman on the side....D'you think I'm stupid or something?

The only time he spoke to me was when I was leaving the area.
He wanted to know the price I'd obtained for the house.
I told him and he sat down on his garden wall, breathing hard.

'Nom d'un chien! There must be some blithering idiots about! Sold to another rosbif, I suppose! the maire's daughter.

Nom d'un chien!

When his wife had to have a small operation some years ago, he protested that he was by far the more ill and should also go to hospital.
As it was clear that he could not look after himself, he was accordingly taken to the long stay ward... a pleasant ground floor area with access to the gardens...where he proceeded to make a thorough nuisance of himself.

Racist abuse of the North African doctors could have been expected, but his major coup was to confiscate the zimmer frames of other residents and stack them out of range at the end of the gardens, to prevent their users from disturbing his siesta by shuffling about.
The food was declared inedible - he lost weight;  the staff were sadists - confiscated his cigarettes; and everything was the fault of his wife who had allowed quacks and money making charlatans to persuade her that she was ill in order to make money for the hospital.

Once home again, the daily routine took over again...until last year, when tragedy struck.

Alain and his wife were on holiday when it happened, and heard the news from their daughter, who had been summoned by the gendarmerie.

The Poisoner's house had caught fire and it was only by terrific exertions on the part of the fire Brigade that Alain's outbuildings had not followed suit.

He was lucky....The Poisoner's house was burned out, uninhabitable. The roof...which had just been insulated three weeks before...had fallen in....the place was a smouldering wreck.
Neither he nor his wife were hurt and the the maire immediately found them alternative accommodation, in one of the old peoples' bungalows which had been built in the village centre to try to keep the elderly in touch with their friends and families instead of going off to the 'waiting rooms of death', as the local old peoples' homes were known in that area.

The cause of the fire?
The Poisoner's wife had inadvertently left the gas on in the back kitchen when summoned to the garden by her husband...there had been a build up of gas...and an explosion.

It might surprise you - because it surprised everyone else - that he uttered not one word of complaint, nor made any accusation of his wife.

Why not?

Because one could not expect women to have any sense at all and so there would be no point in saying anything. It was in the nature of things.

The change of routine was, I suppose, too much for him. Accustomed to his home and his garden for all his adult years, he must have found life in a group of bungalows with sociable people too trying to stand.

As Alain said, there are all sorts of things on the death certificate, but basically he died because he was 91 and because he had lost his home.

So why does the death of a thoroughly unpleasant man bother me?
I cannot honestly say that I feel in any way that his death, of itself, diminishes me.

I think what bothers me is that I won't be attending the funeral, which brings it home to me that I have really uprooted myself.
I won't be in the church in the square, hearing the sudden bustle at the door as the men come in from the bar just in time to file past the coffin.
I won't be talking to friends as we make the long walk to the cemetery, family and friends carrying memorial plaques, where the workmen will have opened the family tomb.
I won't be paying my respects to the widow and family with everyone else.
If I'd still been in France, I would gave driven over...
I am no longer part of that community...that part of mankind...that made a point of attending the funerals, of marking the passage, of showing support by their mere presence.
It didn't matter who had died...or who or what they went to the funeral.

That was the last place I lived in in France that felt like other areas it was friends and family only unless it was a local 'notable'...just as in the U.K.....and I always count myself lucky that I had that experience of solidarity.
And miss it. As I missed it in later moves in France.
Only now, the reality of an ocean between that village and where I am now living makes it impossible to roll back the years by just driving over to attend the funeral.

Oh, and why, you might ask, was he known as The Poisoner?
He was a  gardener in the true French mould. Not a plant out of line, not a weed to be seen, not a shoot unpruned.

At the first sign of insect damage, blight, or, indeed, of anything out of order in his vegetable kingdom, his wife would be sent scurrying for water in the big back packs used for spraying while he headed for his shed.

That shed must have contained enough of the assorted poisons put out by the agro chemical companies to have been of interest to terrorist groups bent on wiping out France...he sprayed everything that needed it and anything that looked as if it might.
You can just imagine the levels of pesticide, herbicide and goodness only knows whaticide on his fruit and veg...which he then consumed.

If only Monsanto had known of his existence, they could have used him as an advertisement for the innocuous nature of their death dealing products....

Look, he's been using this stuff all his life and he made it to 91.....probably still be alive if his wife hadn't burned down the house...look at the facts...our chemicals are less dangerous than women.

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  1. I liked that post - some hidden depths to it. I remember when I came to Wales from my home village in Northumberland and the feeling of isolation that caused. It took me years to feel at home again. I'm not sure I could manage to cross an ocean for good.

  2. He would have had a "hunting accident" long ago if he had lived in this very matriarchal region of France!

  3. A poignant account in all sorts of ways, Fly. He may have been nasty, but he was part of a way of life which has all but disappeared.

    In our very rural bit of Mid-Wales there is still a lot of neighbourly attendance at the funeral, as long as it's in the church or chapel and not 40 miles away at the 'crem'. I took a fair few funerals in my time and always appreciated the show of community solidarity.

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  5. Mark, while living within driving distance I could keep alive that physical link with an area whose customs and ways had been my introduction to in other areas later was almost as strange as making the move to the other side of the ocean has been, but because of the physical proximity I could disguise that from myself.

    Making a complete cultural break has in some ways been easier.
    No false assumptions.

    Dash, I often wondered how he didn't manage to ingest some of his own poisons 'by accident', but I suppose he had acquired immunity anyway by the system of Mithridates...

  6. Perpetua, Sorry, fat finger...deleted the wrong comment!
    I'm sorry about the muddle caused by moderation...I put it on to deal with one very unpleasant person.
    I'll delete the second, if that's O.K.

    He was a relic, that's for sure, a most unattractive personality and a reminder of what life could be like for women in the past.

  7. Thanks, Fly, that will tech me to be more observant :-)

    Yes, I often wonder how women coped, in France and elswehere, with the appalling attitude towards them on the part of some men. Ground glass in the sugar bowl, or is that why the French use sugar lumps?

  8. What an amazing man. Hell to live with but for those seeking inspiration for a sitcom or a murder thriller... so much fodder just lying there for the taking. Seriously, a true characterful old man. They don't make 'em like that anymore. People these days have all the colour leached out of them (present company excepted).

  9. Perpetua, not your fault...pity about the unpleasant person making moderation necessary.

    You get all with a similar background to his were loving husbands and fathers.

    Steve, his wife hated him, their one son hated him....I always wondered what his own father was like.
    You're right about the drabness of today's people, 'designer' clothes, Marks and Sparks food, and not an original thought from anus to occiput....or not one they dare express.

  10. Fascinating insight into the old fella (which is by far too nicer name for him), It's a shame it is making you a little sad, but I'm sure there are plenty of characters around you in Costa Rica and you won't feel sad for long.

  11. Roz, yes, quite a few other descriptions of him rise easily to mind!
    Thanks for the sympathy...odd things like this make me a bit down sometimes....but it passes.

    We're both enjoying life here so much more than we did in the last few years in France....and if we needed any reminding of the horrors...take a look at this link

    and the preceding saga of trying to buy a house in the countryside!
    I shuddered!

  12. What was the story behind leaving that first community?

    I've left so many behind. It doesn't usually bother me, but occasionally there's a twinge. Sometimes I wish parallel lives were possible, and then I remember how irritating it is having two houses (whatever I'm looking for can be guaranteed to be in the other house, and doesn't that remark come over as a spoilt 1st world moan?) and hate to think how I would (fail to) cope with parallel lives.

    All the same, hearing that door close on a previous life can be a sombre moment.

  13. Such a lovely story Fly. Just goes to show how we all come to love and cherish the villain of the piece in reality. Without the Dick Dastardly’s and the J R Ewings to keep us all collectively seething away together in our respective communities, we’d probably end up yelling at ourselves in the mirror – that or die of boredom.

    The void they leave when they pass is real. And oddly baffling.

    Reminds me of a lovely old quote - “They say a reasonable amount 'o fleas is good fer a dog - keeps him from broodin' over bein' a dog, mebbe”.

    Just read ‘Piglet’s post’. Edgar Alan Poe couldn’t have written anything more gruesome.

  14. Pueblo girl, I've left the U.K. and in France...and no doubt, in Costa Rica in the future.

    Mr. Fly is a serial recividist house restorer...just show him something gorgeous that is run down and he is into the lawyer the next day!

    I used to keep in contact with the people in my first two places in France...later moves were not so encouraging.
    Or I'd learned a lot.
    There's an awful lot I can't blog about...not without lawyers after every penny I possess in France..but just wait until I can sell my house....then you really do get the Real France!

    Phil, there are people like The Poisoner everywhere...he stood out by not hiding or being hypocritical about how he least you knew where you stood with him.

    The Piglet post just depressed me so much.....reminded of me of all the downside of France.

  15. Have you heard how the wife is getting on without him?

  16. Crikey, what a character, The Poisoner. But what would humanity be without people like this, if only to remind the rest of us how not to be. I like to think that the misogyny is fading in our first world communities, but thankfully I still enjoy all the benefits of established communities - strengthened quite a bit since the Christchurch earthquakes.

  17. My mother's father, while not a poisonous toad, insisted on having his meals in the dining room alone while his wife and my mother had theirs in the little 'breakfast room' next to the kitchen. He got all the best bits to eat too, in those wartime years. It drove my mother mad with fury.

    The death of the Poisoner marks the end of that bygone age but I doubt many will be sad to see it go, especially his wife who probably hasn't stopped dancing a jig since or eating in the dining room.

    Piglet's story is shocking and stinks strongly of dodgy behind-the-scenes shenanigans.

  18. Roosie, no, I haven't heard, but as the house is still being rebuilt....not speedy the French artisan and even less speedy the French insurance company....I wonder if she'll move back there...or go to live with her son.

    Lady Mondegreen's Secret Garden, well, he was certainly an object lesson!
    Interesting how the community pulled together after the Christchurch quake...people reckon that city dwellers have lost the art, but this seems to have proved them wrong.

    Sarah, these men certainly had an exaggerated sense of their own importance!
    I haven't had news of his wife yet.

    And as for the Piglet saga...the smell of old fish rises to the heavens...

  19. Fantastic post, it made me want to celebrate the next unpleasant individual I come across. Even The Poisoner's name has authority - I'm picturing a tarot card drawing.

    And your post reminds me how rare that feeling of community is, and that it is something to treasure (though it can be hard to recognize and appreciate until it's gone).

  20. Amy, the feeling of community was very strong in the first two places in which I lived and I really appreciated being included.

    Later, the lack of community solidarity was palpable, so it was always good to return to those villages, to visit friends, to go to the regular events...

    Impossible to ignore The Poisoner...dead or alive!

  21. Excellent post, it's soothing to my brow being lost again in your own version of France.

  22. Jimmy, I had a number of very good years there....still have friends and love keeping up with events.

    But I'm not sorry to have left it behind, either.