DERNIER MOT - OLD CHESTNUTS
It’s an old chestnut that “les vrais Cevennoles” are hard, dry, taciturn people; closed, unwelcoming and difficult to charm. But I’ve never found that to be true, possibly because my first job here was as a home help.
Needless to say I wasn’t very efficient, and at first I was in a sweat because most of the houses I visited were cleaner before I arrived than when I left, what with toting the baby along, and being followed everywhere by Dolly-dog, and Puss...
But I soon realised that most of my old ladies couldn’t care less about cleaning - what they wanted was a chance to chat, mostly about the past. One of them in particular, Eglantine, was a mine of information about the village; she showed me her wedding photos (“I’ve always been fat”) and old sepia pictures of village feast days and famines, tragedies and triumphs, the pig killing, the fête, the doctor on his old mule... she described the depopulation of the village when no-one came home for the second war running, and the silk trees died, and the Parisians went off marrons glaces so the bottom fell out of the chestnut market and the widows couldn’t even sell their chestnut jam, and all the underwear factories closed, and there wasn’t any work...
But her best story definitely came from the war. “Did I tell you about the day the Nazis came to Moisson?” she demanded one day. “Leave the floor! Sit down a bit and listen!
“One day,” she said, “we saw a German tank coming up the hill. Of course everyone panicked. We had no men to defend us, and nowhere to hide. So the Mayor said we’d have to bribe them to go away.
“Of course we all knew that the café-owner had more cognac than he let on, and naturally everyone knew the butcher had hidden most of the salted pork, but the Mayor said that wasn’t enough. We all had to bring something to give the Nazis.
“So in a hurry, we all ran and pulled out our hidden treasures, and took them back into the “place”. One had some eggs, another a bar of soap, another a pat of butter... I had a jar of jam, and the Mayor himself, well he brought a new pair of socks. Well, by this time we could hear the tank coming, and all the dogs were barking and the babies crying and we stood there, holding our presents and shaking in our shoes, and waiting...
“What a day that was...” said Eglantine, her eyes glinting as she reached the climax of her story.
“What happened next? Please, do go on!”
“Ah well, the tank rolled into the “place”, and this German officer jumped down in his uniform with his big map and his bad French, and said they were lost. They were looking for St Moisson du Londres, not our little village at all. So we all put our presents behind our backs and the Mayor pointed the way down the mountain and they got back in their tank and went away.”
“And they never came back?”
“No. But there was hell to pay in the café that night because all the men demanded cognac!”
Still giggling, she produced photos of the villagers constructing the war monuments, and told me about the men and boys lost. Boys she’d been to school with. I learned something. French history and culture, the hardships of country living and the history of this region, which has formed the special, extra-dry character of the Cevennoles.
Sitting at the kitchen table, keeping my fingers busy while Eglantine talked and talked, I not only learned French, I also learned to skin chestnuts.
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