How to Survive in a French Village by Tony Cole

 

Photo by E2 Ruins of Fontenoy château

PART ONE

When we got to Fontenoy le Chateau (a small village in the low Vosges) in 1997, we knew absolutely no one, and to be honest we had moments of wondering what on earth we were doing, coming to a small community in a country we really only knew from holidays (and in my case, a rather large number of relatives clustered in Paris and around Lyons).  We did more or less speak French, and had gone to a lot of trouble to try and find out about banking, bureaucrats and other “official” things.  But simply living, making friends and becoming part of the community, well that was quite a different set of problems.

A short video to give you an idea what Fontenoy looks like:

https://youtu.be/6YDvo6KvLb8

After we had been there for a few months, I became aware of the existence in the village of what in France are called “Associations”, which are groups of people who have got together, formed a club of sorts in order to pursue some common aim.  These Associations have a legal existence and are all properly registered in the head office of the Departement, which in the case of Fontenoy meant Epinal, a nearby city of some 100 000 souls.

Anyhow, I thought that by joining one or more of these Associations, I might be able to sort of break into the village community and become part of the daily life there, and almost more importantly, make some friends.

In the event, I achieved all those aims and much, much more, and ended up being a very central part of the life and soul of Fontenoy along with a fair number of other highly active (both physically and organizationally) local citizens.

Thus I first joined an Association with the resounding name of Des Amis du Vieux Fontenoy, which devoted itself chiefly to the restoration of the ruined 11th Century castle that explained the “Chateau” part of Fontenoy le Chateau’s name.

This restoration mainly consisted of keeping the grass and weeds in and around the very thoroughly ruined castle under control, and organising a student work camp each summer holiday, where students came, lived in one of the remaining sections of the medieval wall that used to surround Fontenoy and slowly carried out a mix of archaeology and restoration work on the castle.. But to be honest, this is really a 100 year project as the castle was very big in its heyday, and is pretty conclusively ruined now.  And most of the stones that originally constituted the castle have over the centuries been stolen and used to build the houses in Fontenoy itself.  Including the imposing church too, by the way.

And whilst the more fanatical members of the Association were fully prepared to demolish all those houses and even the church to get the castle’s stones back, there was a certain reluctance on the part of the good citizens of Fontenoy to allow that to happen.  Stalemate thus.

Actually the castle became a ruin not by the jaws of time, but was captured by, of all  things, a Swedish army that happened to be operating in that area during the 100 years war, and who upon capturing the castle, forced the good burgers of Fontenoy to pretty conclusively demolish the castle.

When I joined this Association, its Chairperson was the highly energetic and impressive Veronique Andre, a good soul who became a very good friend over the roughly 10 years we spent in Fontenoy.   Vero, being the sort of person she was, I also found very much in evidence in the several other Associations I joined shortly after becoming active in the Friends of Fontenoy.

In the course of my Fontenoy period, I was a very active member of as above, the Friends of Old Fontenoy, also of Les Amis de L’Ecole, an association who busied themselves chiefly with fund raising for the local primary school in the village through all manner of events, chief being the now famous all over France Feu de St. Jean and making and processing the float for Saint Nicholas on 5th December every year, and last but by no means least, sending that float to the Carnival procession in the nearby town of Bains les Bains where all the local villages and small towns processed through the town on their various floats with bands and all other good things as part of the Catholic Carnival (Mardi Gras).

https://youtu.be/OosCfCybz8g (in French)

The creative and organisational driving force in that association in those days was another truly good friend of ours, Jean Pierre Remond, who was a real jack of all trades, could design constructions superbly, understood the mechanics of large constructions, and was a very good organiser of labour and material suppliers too.

Being of a creative bent I also joined the Association called Village de l”Ecrit, which as its name would suggest, busied itself with all manner of literary matters, including giving an annual prize to what their jury considered to be the best book of the year written by a Vosgean writer.   Sort of local equivalent of the Booker Prize really.

This one was led by an equally energetic soul, the good Michou, who used to be a teacher but was by then retired.  She also became a pretty good friend over the years I worked with her for that Association.  This work consisted mainly of creating an enormous number of plywood “Speech Bubbles” each year on which we carefully painted quotes from all manner of authors, in French (of course) but also in honour of the considerable number of Dutch folk in the area, and who passed through on their holidays, in Dutch and as a sort of small gesture to those Brits, such as Lotty, Roger Oscar et.al who were hanging around, in English.  And occasionally in German too.  Particularly the heavier and darker of the Germanic philosophers.

These we hung up all over the village, so almost every house, shop and public building had at least one of these panels decorating it for the entire summer.   It is indicative of the cohesive nature of such a village that everyone was very happy to have one or more of these panels hanging on their house or fence, and as Michou, Daniel (another village stalwart who became a real friend over the years) and I hung these panels, we had long and enjoyable conversations about the quote that was being hung up.   Like all good villagers all over the world, most people in Fontenoy always had time to stop and chat.

Occasionally this could be mildly irritating to me, as they were perfectly happy to do this when driving their cars through the village going in opposite directions, if they came upon each other, they would cheerfully stop, blocking the road completely and chat amiably away for a quarter hour or more… And no one worried.

People around there lived very long lives by and large. And I suspect that this very relaxed approach to life had a lot to do with that.  That and the way they always recognised each other’s existence.   Walking though the town could take time, as one had to greet almost everyone by name, and at least pass a couple of minutes discussing the weather or whatever… I liked this a lot.

To be continued . . .

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