ON Sundays like this, in the middle of April, sitting outside as temperatures reach 28C, I occasionally wonder what the few passing French think of me – the woman at the end of her table; spring after spring, book in hand, unprotected face turned upwards to a sun they turn away from.
Or perhaps that is the ultimate egoism; that these men – for it is usually men – in their little white vans and speedy cars think anything of me at all.
I know all did at the beginning here. All wondered about this solitary woman who had moved into LM, released for the market once the old grandmother died. (She didn’t die here. She had long gone on to richer things but clung to her beloved childhood home with, and until, her last breath.)
They had become used to the odd Anglo couple buying their tumbledown wrecks for ludicrous prices, but a woman alone, with a dog of a race few had seen before?
Of course I now know of all the thoughts they had then – or rather some of them, for however close one gets to the rural French one rarely hears all. Or perhaps it’s closer to the truth to say one only hears what they feel one would want to know.
Basically some surmised that I had to be fleeing from something or someone; was off my trolley; or was an artiste of some renown in search of solitude and inspiration.
And, and, and … so I’m told, with some there was a quiet pride that I found this area beautiful enough to leave the city fleshpots of the UK.
Of course it was “the expats” who speculated most about the fresh meat, although in time familiarity bred contempt, as it often does, on both sides.
We’re all Matryoshka dolls here – open one and another nestles inside until only a tiny one remains; and who is to say that one is the real one?
Such things I thought of as I re-read an old Stephen King book, The Stand, after he tweeted his belief that Donald Trump could be seen in the main character. The coming apocalypse he wrote of was perhaps a little less chilling under a sun that was already wilting my newly bought, but still awaiting bedding, plants. And of course, running in a parallel dialogue always these days in my head were Brexit and Marine le Pen.
I doubt, aware that most of the villages around me are Front National, that those who drove by today were thinking similar thoughts. Or, if they were, they would be “good” thoughts, not the dark fears the FN bring to my mind.
Also today in a radio interview, le Pen, daughter of the man who claimed the Holocaust was a mere detail of history, said the French were not responsible for the 1942 Vel’ d’Hiv round-up in which more than 13,000 Jews were arrested to be deported to Nazi concentration camps. A third of those were children.
“I think in a general way, more generally, actually,” she said. “Those responsible were those in power then; this is not France.”
Ah, but it is; Matryoshka dolls again.
A few weeks ago I was shocked to hear the reasons why many locals do not see a certain professional man in the area. I always thought his arrogance and manner had alienated them the way he had me. He is French but not from these parts. “So did I,” said an English friend who feels the same. “Until I was talking about it with a French pal. He looked at me in mild astonishment. No, no he said – and he touched the side of his nose – it’s because he’s a Jew.”
He told me this and we stared at each other; me in shock, my friend telling me yes, that is what he said.
I’m sure, even now, such things happen in all countries. I find it though, particularly ugly, brutal and almost unbelievable that it happens here, where two world wars have left their mark on both the landscape and the people.
Such casual anti-Semitism is so abhorrent to me that I flinch from it, preferring to believe it is rarely expressed and then only by the vilest of people. But the increasingly frequent stories in our papers of vandalism in synagogue and cemetery tell me otherwise, although there is said – said – to be a drop in the figures.
And now le Pen has stirred that ancient, festering pot again with her clumsy words, in some warped attempt to appeal to French pride.
Back at my spot outside I wave to the farmers returning from bucolic lunches en famille, knowing that soon all of them will place their tick against the FN on the first-round ballot papers. Yet we smile and wave in apparent solidarity, all part of this little backwater in France. And perhaps they’ll wonder again just why I came here and why I stay; and I’ll wonder why the undercurrent of racism flows as strongly as ever in this country.
But I’ll go back to my book and they’ll go back to the fields – all of us Matryoshka dolls.