Wednesday, November 21, 2012

A bunch of bayleaves


The hedge cutter man is savaging the garden.  It's really no bad thing, everything will look better for it in the end, but it's kind of brutal and rather stressful, and we feel he goes a bit far sometimes. I'm sure he thinks we're daft English and too soft on our shrubs.

Tom brought a branch of bayleaves up which he felt needed sparing from the bonfire, did I want it for the kitchen?  I like the flavour of bay, one of the first things I learned to cook after I'd left home was a very simple potato soup, from Diet for a Small Planet I think, and the bayleaf was the making of it.  The smell of the leaves reminds me of a family holiday we took at an old house somewhere in mid-Wales called Gwynfryn, it was just before my siblings embarked on their first wave of emigration, so I was six.  There were gardens with lawns and tall bay hedges, and a sheepdog called Fly.  My sister Alison took the varnish off one of the dressing tables with nail-polish remover, my other sister was pregnant and cried when our sister-in-law got cross with her little boy, our nephew.  He and I shared a bath and some rude words.  We were happy and sad.  For the rest of her life I could crush a bay leaf in my hand and hold it out to my mum and one of us would say 'Gwynfryn'. Some of these memories may be slightly muddled but all of them are real.

The hedge man said he had a brother living in the country near us somewhere.  I questioned that he didn't know quite where.  He said he had fallen out with his family fifteen years or so ago.  I made the conventional noises about these things happen, sometimes it's easier to get on with some family members than others...

It was about his children, he said.  He and his wife adopted two Vietnamese children as babies, a girl and a boy.  I met his daughter, who is now seventeen, briefly once when she was working with him next door, perhaps a year ago.  She's beautiful, and so bright and open and grown-up, and clearly had such a good co-operative relationship with him, that I thought briefly that she was older than that and might be his younger wife, before I understood she was his daughter.  He speaks of her with great admiration, for her drive and hard-work and ambition, and it amuses him that the famous King Charles spaniel sleeps on her bed. His son he speaks of with a more rueful but equally genuine love and affection.

But when they told his parents about the adoption plans, which presumably came about because they couldn't have children of their own, and showed them a photo of their future baby daughter, the naked, cruel racism of both of their reactions was shocking, and much of  it unrepeatable.  His father said he would be ashamed to be seen holding the hand of such a child.  His brothers were less offensive but gave them no support.  A couple of years ago he did attend the christening of one of his brother's children, with his now-teenage daughter, the first time anyone in the family had seen her.  His brother commented, quite seriously, on how well she spoke French.

When his father died a few years ago, other family members exhorted him to build bridges, make an effort, resume relations with his mother and the rest of the family. No, he said, it's too late, finished; they made no efforts for him, and why risk being hurt again and hurting his children too?

When they go on holiday, they leave the King Charles spaniel with his wife's mother. Do they get on all right, I ask, the dog and the mother-in-law?  Oh yes, he said, she's a good mother-in-law.

He left earlier today to take his son to ping-pong and his daughter to her driving lesson.  He puts in a fairly short day but works non-stop, his armoury of machinery is formidable and nothing is too hard for him, he's a hard man.  He's working elsewhere tomorrow, so we can at least have a bit of a lie-in and a day without the whirr of the hedge-trimmer.

9 comments:

Roderick Robinson said...

Would you say this naked racism is typical of France - perhaps of rural France? I ask without any preconceptions and realise only an anecdotal response is possible.

Dick said...

How visceral the shock when one actually confronts racism as an actual phenomenon rather than just an issue in the media.

Setu said...

To Roderick Robinson:
Being a Breton man living in rural Brittany, I must say that "rural France" is not a valid expression. There are hundreds of different kinds of "rural France"... and tens of "rural Brittany". As regards "my" rural part of Brittany, I would like you to remember that we, rural people, have elected (and re-elected)an African representative, as a rural mayor first (he was even the only African person in his "commune" then), as a County councillor (twice, he was even the a Deputy chairman of the "Conseil général" in charge of water issues, which are mainly rural issues), as a Parliament representative too. The last time he was present in the polls he got 70% to 80% of the votes in some remote rural parts of Central Brittany. Racists, do you think? It is only after his local success that Pdt Mitterrand chose him to be one of his ministers. His name is Kofi Yamgnane.
I must say now that my wife and children are black and have been quite integrated in their rural community since our arrival here. Now living away from home, the children still still present themselves as Black Bretons. Of course, you may also find a few racists in our community. But you may find them in every sociological layer of the French society. And, as far as I know in my everyday's life, they are far less present here than in some rural areas of southern France, for instance

Roderick Robinson said...

Setu: I lived 100 or so kilometres south of you in a small village in Loire-Atlantique for a decade and never noticed any racial discrimination there. That is why I prefaced my question "without preconceptions". Rather than say "rural France is not a valid expression" I think "is not an exact expression" is preferable and I apologise for my carelessness with the former. Perhaps I should never have asked the question but given that I have I would agree that discrmination is greatest in areas where the FN polls highest and I can personally confirm that I have no intention of re-visiting Carpentras for this very reason. I love Brittany for a number of reasons and you have just provided another. Thank you.

Zhoen said...

My aunt Evelyn always said family are often people you would otherwise not associate with. We counted each other friends. Sometimes genetic kin are not tolerable even by that standard, and no loss.

Lucy said...

Sorry to be so late to reply.

Setu, I rather hoped you might look in here as I feel your perspective is pretty unique in either my on- or off-line acquaintance - polyglot and cosmopolitan and enormously world-knowledgeable but also very embedded in your 'pays', both France but especially Brittany, though of course your Breton Brittany is not the same entity as our Pays Gallo. Learning a little more about your family confirms that further.

Robbie, as you say, any response,certainly of mine, can only be anecdotal. My response to your question, which is a perfectly good one to ask, was no, I wouldn't say typical. This case, where someone's bigotry was clearly dearer to them than the feelings of their own children, is, I would hope, fairly exceptional anywhere; I've certainly not heard of anything so cruel here before. Not many of us, I suppose can hope to be totally free of mistakes, prejudices and assumptions, bred perhaps of fear and ignorance, but given a situation of an talented representative such as Kofi Y, schoolmates and neighbours such as Setu's family, or one's own childless offspring wishing to offer love and parenting to an overseas child, most of us would make an effort and get over it, and be the better for it.

When we, the gardener and I, were talking, I mentioned a former student of mine who was involved with a charitable association facilitating adoptions from African countries. He said he wouldn't have adopted an African child, only because he felt the racism they would have to endure would be even worse. However, the experience of his own family might have made him particularly sensitive.

My feeling confirms what Setu says, that Brittany is less reactionary and bigoted than many areas of 'la France profonde', but French society is complex, of course, and I don't pretend to understand one tiny part of it.

I suppose I might hazard an impression that perhaps (some) French people are sometimes less reserved about expressing extreme opinions, at whichever end or area of the political spectrum than (some) Brits are, but I don't know.

Zhoen - I'm glad you read and commented, because in fact I thought of you. The story was as much, it seemed to me, about what family means, what one owes to one's parents and children and what you shouldn't be prepared to put up with. I think I would say that distancing oneself from one's parents and family are not done lightly here, mutual responsibility of parents and children is enshrined in law and largely a social given. I admired the man's courage for standing by his decision, principles and the family and loved ones he had chosen, and not compromising.

Dale said...

such a lovely post, Lucy!

Joe Hyam said...

We cut down the bay in our small garden because it had grown from the seedling I planted 30 yeara ago into a giant which shut out the light from two windows and allowed little to grow beneath it. It lives on though. Every year shoots sprout from the stump and have to be pruned. And we are never short of bay leaves.

Lucy said...

Thanks Dale, I was quite pleased with it.

Joe, it's true, they are marvellously regenerative. Old Marcel cut his down to the ground and it sprouts eternal. The fresh ones do taste better than the dry, don't they?