How To Survive In A French Village

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

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 archeology 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 hey day, 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, it’s 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).

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 lead 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 others 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.

The procession of floats through Bains les bains each year was a sort of social high point in the wider area around Fontenoy.  As I said above, all the local villages built some sort of a float for this very important and much loved event in the yearly calender.   I took part in this for most of the roughly 10 years I lived in Fontenoy, dressed in a variety of costumes appropriate to that year’s float.   One of my favourite ones was when I was pulled behind a tractor in a huge double four poster which I was sharing with a splendid old lady, who was notably short of teeth, called Antoinette.   Rural France is remarkably prudish sometimes, and the sight of the two of us happily in that bed pleasantly scandalized the public who stood beside the road as we passed by….  I was teased about my romantic and erotic involvement with Antoinette for many years after that one.  Another very happy memory, and Antoinette was a simply delightful woman to talk to, and as I discovered, to share a bed with….   Even if all we did was talk to each other.

Daniel and Gerard ready for Carnival

Antoinette and I in the famous four poster

 Me lurking beside a Chinese dragon one year

Anyway, by means of my very active involvement in the Associations in Fontenoy, and by being prepared to help anyone who needed a bit of help – going up onto the forest to gather their allocation of winter firewood, helping repair a roof, whatever was needed, I rapidly became accepted as one of them, a real honour I felt.

In the course of all of this, I made some extremely good friends, as Fontenoy seemed to have more than its share of good hearted people in it.  People such as Gerard, who used to own the one garage in the village, and was a rather rotund and red faced but utterly likable and reliable man, all the various active members of the Associations I belonged to.  Also there was Roger (Monk) Llewellyn-Smith and Marion his wife who arrived after us, and who became great and important friends to us, which they still are.. And of course Jean Pierre’s wife, Marianne.  The list of friends we made there is simply too long really to put here, but there were many of them.. and the friendships we made mattered to us, and still do in many cases. Actually while Fontenoy had its less pleasant inhabitants, as everywhere does, the great majority of the people there were actually remarkably pleasant and friendly to us.

When it came time for us to leave France and go off to work in Angola, I was given a surprise farewell party and honour  in the town hall.   How they managed to keep that a secret from me was a minor miracle, as in such a village, the saying that “if you dropped your hammer at the eastern end of the village, people were talking about it at the western end before it had even got to the ground” really did apply.

Anyway, I was sort of tricked into going to the town hall that night by Oscar, who told me that there was a special meeting of the town’s folk to discuss something or other of importance, which I should take part in.  So as he had grabbed me while I was still working, I was in my dirty work clothes when we arrived at the town hall, and I was surprised to see that just about everyone I knew in the village was there, all dressed in their Sunday best.

On entering the hall I was grabbed, pushed out to the front, and the good lady Mayoress – Francoise – started to make a speech aimed at me….  And to announce that I was to be given the Fontenoy Medal – and honour that Fontenoy had instituted to show appreciation to people who had really contributed in a very notable fashion to the community in some way or other…And that apparently was me!

After which a number of friends made speeches extolling my many virtues (in their eyes at least).   I was totally overcome by the entire thing.  Never having been at the receiving end of such public acclaim in my entire life.  I was also doubly honoured by the fact that I was not a native of the village, and not even French for God’s sake, but of all things, an Englishman….!

I am overwhelmed as The Mayoress tells us all how wonderful I am…

Not sure I believe what they are saying about me

An astonished me, with the Fontenoy medal in my hand.  Note that I am leaning on the table. I needed to.

Lotty was working in Geneva at the time, so it was arranged that she would phone during the ceremony to give me her thoughts as well…

That is  a memory I will cherish for the rest of my life.   It had real significance to me, as I truly loved Fontenoy, those people who had befriended and helped me while we were there and I was actually very sad to be leaving a place in which we had invested so much work, thought, dreams and hopes.   But, that party at the end was amazing, wonderful and unforgettable.

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