When you fall in love common sense flies out of the window. This is how it was for David and Doris Johnson when they found a down-at-heel mini chateau in the heartland of France. A three year restoration began - and with it a journey of discovery.
Everything in France starts or finishes with drinks.
On November 11th we attended the memorial service. This was an entirely civil affair, conducted largely by Monsieur Cabacou, the Mayor. The guest of honour was the region’s Chief of Police, Monsieur Menotte, who also lives in Entrechoux.
As far as I know, in England the ceremony universally takes place at 11.00, but in France there are local variations. In Entrechoux it was set for 11.30, so we decided to have our own little ceremony, with some English friends, before the official one.
Just before 11.00 we marched from our front door the full 20 metres to the war memorial. As the church clock struck the hour we stood with our heads bowed for the two minutes’ silence. There are, I suppose, special thoughts for each of us, but for me it is always the friends I lost serving in Malaya.
The minutes between the two ceremonies were just enough for us to pop back to La Maison D’Etre for a cup of tea.
The ‘official’ ceremony began with the firing of a maroon. The Mayor bent down and lit the match, it went off instantly – a problem with the fuse I think – and seared the skin on his cheek enough to make it bleed. He ignored the wound completely, not even raising a finger to touch it, and stepped back into line.
Everyone faced the solitary memorial. Monsieur Cabacou, with natural gravitas and a fine fruity voice gave a short address. Then the Deputy Mayor, Monsieur St. Nectaire, read the names from the column listing those who had died in two world wars.
After each name, a third man repeated ‘mort pour La France’. It was only after the final ‘mort pour La France’ that the two minute silence began.
This simple ceremony was perhaps the biggest culture shock we had experienced since coming to France. The ceremony was, I suppose, similar to those held in thousands of villages in Britain, but there were no uniforms, no medals and no priests. The Republic is a great leveller and that’s fine with me.
After the ceremony we retired to the salle de féte for drinks.
Of the couple of dozen of us, five were English and one was Dutch. As we are on the fringe of the Cognac region we drank pineau which is traditionally a mixture of unfermented grape juice and inferior brandy that works pretty well. The ‘home brew’ versions – made locally from a second pressing of the brandy grapes – are sensational.
We spoke French to the best of our abilities. We even spoke French to the other English as it was somehow the right thing to do on the occasion.
But, as we were about to leave, the Mayor, Monsieur Cabacou, detached himself from a group of friends and cut us off at the door.
‘Monsieur, Madame,’ I just want to say how good it is to have our English friends sharing our day of remembrance. Sometimes I think the nations are better friends in war than they are in peace. But I hope you have been made welcome here in Entrechoux.’
Doris assured him that we had been made very welcome. He smiled.
‘That is very good,’ he said, ‘very good. We are, you know a little old fashioned. You will find pies on window ledges that are cooling ... not thawing. And there are still those who believe that the most important thing to have in a modern home is a family.’
‘We believe in these things, too,’ said Doris.
He smiled again, and inclined his head a little.
‘I know that, Madame,’ he said, ‘which is why you are so welcome to our village. May I ask you something?’
‘Certainly,’ said Doris.
‘What do you think of the hunt?’
This question was both unexpected and a potential minefield. Although we are not repulsed by hunting, we basically just don’t see the point. Doris said something to that effect.
‘I understand,’ said Monsieur Cabacou, ‘but perhaps you will agree that traditionally, in French villages there are three things that govern our lives – the commune, the church, and the hunt. I say ‘govern’ because we French have a strange attitude to government. In Britain you think politicians are honest until you learn they are not. In France we assume all politicians are corrupt. So, the less they interfere in our lives the better. Less government is best government. And no government in France would ban the hunt. I say this Monsieur because we have heard that the hunt is to be banned in England.’
Doris and I had regularly seen able-bodied men (over sixteen) meet after church on Sundays for the purpose of massacring wildlife. The dogs you see are invariably spaniels or retrievers and there are no horses either – just tons of weaponry loaded into white vans. The tradition has been for the men to wear camouflage suits, although it is now accepted that this conceals man from animal less effectively than man from man. The result – a number of fatal accidents – has encouraged the wearing of red vests and hats. This scenario is mirrored throughout rural France. It has little in common with English fox hunting. A few do hunt with horse and hound, but generally the French hunt resembles what we would call ‘rough shooting’. It covers almost all types of terrain and social boundaries. What is hunted depends on where you are: rabbits, birds and wild boar are as likely victims as the fox.
‘So you are saying that the hunt is to do with freedom?’ said Doris.
‘More than that, Madame. The chasse represents the personal right of the peasant to take an evening stroll with his dogs for the purpose of catching rabbits. It has not always been so. But, after the revolution, the landowners who survived thought it prudent to share more of what they had with the peasants. Giving permission to hunt on their land was a small price to pay to ensure that their heads remained on their necks. And the hunt was one of the few pleasures not prohibited by the Germans. They knew that for many of us it was the only way of putting something more exotic than cheese on the table. So, at that time, the hunt was also the only legitimate reason for possessing a weapon.’
‘But there are accidents,’ I said.
‘That is true. But then the hunt also represents the freedom to take risks. If you fall off a castle wall it is your own fault. There may even be a notice which tells you it will be your own fault. In the UK I understand you have 4,000 civil servants who make up your Health and Safety Executive. Is it not their job to stop you taking risks? And do you know how many people are employed in the Public Safety Department in France? There are six, Monsieur. What do you think of that?’
‘I think perhaps that the French sometimes take too many risks. Look at the deaths on the road.’
Monsieur Cabacou shrugged his shoulders and smiled.
‘Risk is in our character, Monsieur. If our government tried to tax speeding in the British way there would be another revolution. The words ‘Gatso’ and ‘Gestapo’ often appear in the same sentence in French newspapers. Again it is a reminder of the past. Just like today. We cherish the freedoms we fought for in the War. We will not give them away. This is why the French police will not serve speeding notices incurred in the UK on the owners of vehicles registered in France, but on French roads they catch as many as they can. That is fair. That is the true spirit of the hunt.’
Monsieur Cabacou smiled again.
‘I must go now,’ he said, ‘but you know my office hours. You are always welcome to pop in for an argument. I would enjoy that. Although, of course, as your Mayor it is your duty to let me win.’
‘I will remember that,’ I said.