In August 1974, my thirty-one-year-old parents turned their backs on the security of convention to chase Dad’s computer programming career across Europe. But there must have been more on my parents’ agenda than simply earning a living. I suspect that this move was also about shaking off the suffocating monotony of their young lives; about a craving for the fresh air of adventure.
Our new home was in Logras, a tiny village in the département of Ain, in eastern France, just an hour’s drive from Geneva, Switzerland. The rented house was large, with stone walls a meter thick and wooden shutters at all the windows. To the left of the front door was the kitchen, looking out onto an impossibly steep road, and to the right was a long dining room, at the far end of which a flight of bare stone steps led down to a cellar – the most terrifying place on earth.
My memories of the kitchen are, naturally, all about food. Forty-five years on, the phantom smell of oeuf-sur-le-plat is strong in my nostrils. My parents, who have always been the when-in-Rome type, adopted this method of cooking eggs for breakfast, cherishing it over and above the fried eggs they’d grown up with. The eggs were cooked in butter, on a Pyrex plate, over a pan of simmering water. They were eaten from that same plate (which was very hot), with bread. Whenever I catch a whiff of eggs cooking in butter, I’m back in that big old kitchen.
In 1974, Nutella, now a firm British favourite, was well and truly French. Its English counterpart was a dark and rather sour chocolate spread in a round, shallow pot, which, as far as I remember, was simply called Chocolate Spread. My four-year-old brother, Ivan, lived on Nutella; he’d eat practically nothing else; just Nutella on chunks of baguette. Mum still swears that the sweet hazelnut chocolate spread was responsible for keeping him alive. Dad reckons that Ivan would have eaten if he was hungry, rather than pandered to; he’s probably right.
In Cambridgeshire, our milk came from the milkman. In Logras, it came from the cows who grazed in a nearby meadow. Twice a day, the farmer would herd these bovine ladies from their meadow to the dairy, where they were milked. Shortly afterwards, people would head towards the dairy with metal churns of various sizes, which were filled with warm, creamy, unpasteurised milk.
Dead on arrival
Ivan loved the cows and anything farm related. He’d often trot down to the farm in the early morning to help M. Cousin, the farmer, with his daily work. M. Cousin’s gratitude was occasionally manifested in the donation of a chicken.
The first such token of thanks turned up to our house far from oven ready.
Dad’s fight with the live chicken lives on in our minds to this day. I don’t know how long the wrestling match went on for, but it was very distressing for everyone – not least, the chicken. Just when it seemed that the bird might have won its fight for life, its head was guillotined from its body with the sharp edge of a spade. The struggle may have been over for the chicken, but Dad’s agony lived on as the decapitated creature ran in crazy circles around the garden. Whether or not there were witnesses to this circus, I couldn’t tell you. However, all subsequent gifts were well and truly dead on arrival.
When we moved from Cambridgeshire to Logras, Ivan hadn’t yet started to read, and learning to read in his second language just wasn’t going to happen. His spoken French, though, was fluent ‘kid talk’. He soaked up his schoolmates’ vernacular and chatted away like a native.
At seven years old, I had problems reconciling written French with the speech I was quickly picking up. My written work was a lot of phonetic guesswork, and it wasn’t until I learnt French as a foreign language that I really got to grips with writing it. I have a vivid mental image of my exercise books: pages of blue ink, smothered in red corrections. I learnt to tell the time in French, though, before mastering this skill in English.
It was a funny little school. There were around fifty pupils, divided into two classes. The younger children, from the age of four, were taught by a young lady teacher, who lived in an apartment above the school. Children aged seven or eight (depending on intellectual ability) to twelve were taught by the head teacher – and mayor – M. Gorgier, a fearsome creature who could be an angel to his favourites and a shameful bully to those children whom he disliked.
La petite Anglaise
Fortunately, I (la petite Anglaise) was a favourite, although I was frequently rapped across the knuckles with a ruler for chattering and for biting my nails. Despite being treated well, I despised my teacher for his behaviour towards some of the other children. The memory of Ludwig and Carole, grubby, snotty-nosed siblings, whose desks were within hitting distance of M. Gorgier, is a sad one. My own chronic constipation, a result of deep anxiety, would probably have compared favourably with the secret symptoms of Ludwig and Carole’s stress.
To my relief, Ivan was never in M. Gorgier’s class. My brother spent two comparatively easy years taught by the young lady, writing with chalk on a slate, and drying off on the huge classroom heater whenever he wet himself. The world of fountain pens and punishments wouldn’t have suited him.
Parlez Francais avec Dougal
Whilst Ivan and I became orally fluent (and in my case, semi-literate) in French, my parents found things more difficult. In the adult world, there was less opportunity to learn from peers, and self-consciousness was a barrier to trial and error. Mum still harbours a mortifying memory of standing in the village shop, repeating beurre over and over again to the blank stare of the shopkeeper. Eventually, when Mum pushed her way behind the counter and pointed desperately at the butter, the lady’s face lit up. “Ah, du beurre,” she said, in a why-didn’t-you-say-so tone.
We all benefited from a super little book called Parlez Francais avec Dougal, wherein Dougal, Zebedee, Florence, and Dylan, from The Magic Roundabout, demonstrated objects such as un parapluie, and taught us some simple phrases that we might need in life (with the notable omission of je veux faire pipi). The four of us still think fondly of that book.
Memories live on
My memories of life in France are in glorious technicolour: bright blue gentian and tiny wild daffodils on a smooth green mountain top … Mont Blanc across the valley, glowing orange at sunset … miles and miles of autumn trees piled up on the slopes of the Jura mountains … thick white snow hanging on deep-green branches.
I don’t know if I’ll ever return to Logras. If I do, I think I might not recognise the place.