Deep in the Heart of Rural France (4)

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My Eccentric Friend’s Wife

His wife, a calm, private sort of woman (she was some kind of social worker) was considerably younger than him, but I never knew her well enough to get beneath the outer shell. She seemed to accept her husband’s idiosyncrasies with a mixture of indifference and resignation and only lost her composure when his incessant monologues (he was a great talker – usually on high-blown philosophical or political topics) prevented her from concentrating on the soap opera she was watching on T.V. In cases like this she would inform him with a vague look of irritation, and without the slightest concession to my presence, that ‘Tu nous chauffes les oreilles!’ I never saw him react with any aggressiveness to this type of peremptory injunction which always had the effect of quietening him down. On the contrary, he appeared to take pride in bringing it to my notice that this type of ‘bon sens terre-à-terre’,  down-to-earth common sense, was the main reason for him marrying her.

A Traumatic Childhood

They had three children, a girl and two boys, the eldest of whom was aged around 11, and who worshipped the ground his father trod on. Though generally reluctant to talk about his past, I gathered that my eccentric friend’s mother, who was French, had married a German, and he himself had been born and had spent his boyhood in the Germany of the 30′s where Nazism was on the rise. He did confide in me, however, that (like the young François Théodore Thistlethwaite) he had suffered a great deal in his childhood, as his mixed parentage had made him the object of much cruel taunting on the part of his German peers. One incident I witnessed, moreover, provided evidence to suggest that the sufferings of the boy had been traumatic enough to have affected the man.

One morning, as we were driving back to the village, we passed an isolated farmhouse in front of which a paysan was busy chopping his winter wood. Just as we were passing the man lifted his axe above his head with the aim of splitting a log, and at the same time raised his eyes towards us in what I interpreted simply as an attempt to identify the occupants of our car. My eccentric friend had a different vision of things. Jamming on his brakes he reversed back, stormed out of the car and proceeded to ask the dumbfounded man why he had made such a threatening gesture!

Provocation

My friend’s reputation as an eccentric also rendered him liable to provocation. One of the inconveniences of his house, the garden of which was surrounded by a low wall, was its location next to the café. However, even though things did sometimes get a little boisterous on Saturday evenings – especially when there was un bal monté (a dance held under a temporarily-erected marquis) on the village square – the problem was not systematically one of noise. I first became aware of this one Sunday lunchtime when I myself was busy chopping up wood on my forecourt. As I was taking a breather, I observed a youth stroll out of the café and, without further ado, empty the contents of his bladder against the garden wall. On seeing this, my friend, who was in his garden, politely asked the young man if in future he could satisfy this call of nature inside the cafe (it did have a rudimentary toilet). Without even looking up, let alone replying, the young man slowly zipped up his fly, strolled back inside the café, only to re-emerge a minute later with half a dozen pals. They then lined up with military precision and ostentatiously relieved themselves against the same wall. I fully expected my eccentric friend to go berserk, but he showed remarkable restraint and quietly went inside.

And when the end of my rural sojourn finally arrived I congratulated myself on having faced all those hardships with that same stubborn fortitude (but, fortunately, not the same results) which had made Scott so resolute in his quest to daunt the Antarctic wastes, or Livingstone so determined to convert to Christianity those primitive African tribes. In truth, however, I never regarded them as privations but as part of a unique, privileged adventure, and these experiences only confirmed me in my desire to prolong my stay in France. I recently discovered that Paul Romer died in 1996. Despite his oddities, and even though I could never share his extreme left-wing views, I can’t help thinking that the world is a worse place without him.

 

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