We spent Saturday night and Sunday morning this weekend with some friends in their tastefully restored farmhouse. At breakfast, we were talking about some German friends of ours who seem to carry an entire nation’s burden of guilt on their broad Arian shoulders. They are the type of people who are so kind and so thoughtful that it’s impossible to reciprocate in full. It’s as if they have turned themselves into model citizens in their adopted country as a way of saying sorry for the Nazi occupation.
My friend Howard told us about an old man of the hills, who lived in their village during a previous incarnation of their lives in France, when they lived further south in the hinterlands of Carcassonne. For years, this particular man refused to talk to them. Then, one morning, Howard plucked up the courage to confront him. It turned out that he had mistaken them for Germans. In those days, Howard still had some (fair) hair. His wife and their two daughters are all blonde; therefore they had to be Germans in this man’s eyes. Once he realised that they were English, his resistance collapsed.
This is a part of France where the Résistance was very active. You only have to look at the lie of the land – with all its woods and caves and streams and shepherds’ stone shelters – to conjure up a picture of fleet goings-on under cover of night. While researching an article on a particular village a few weeks ago, I talked to an old man of the bourg. He was over 80 and the palms of his hands were stained black from a lifetime of working the vines. His accent was so strong that I had to strain to catch sufficient words to piece together the story of his life. I did manage to garner that, as a young man in the war, he had run errands for the local chapter of the Maquis.
He offered to show me a couple of memorials that I’d never seen before. So he sat statuesquely in the passenger seat and directed me to a couple of fairly primitive stone monuments in clearings of the causse or scrub that surrounds the village. The first one commemorated the arrival by parachute of an English officer, who came here to work directly with the maquisards. The old man told me that the officer returned to the area after the war and he and his wife settled here until his death a few years ago.
We drove on to the second monument. It was bigger and more prominent, because it marked a day nearer the liberation when the sky had turned Technicolor with hundreds of different-coloured parachutes, all attached to canisters that contained arms and other provisions for the forces of resistance. As he told me all about it, the old man’s excitement was palpable: it all seemed still as vivid to him that afternoon as it must have been on that euphoric day over 65 years ago.
It put me in mind of the self-appointed elder of the village where we used to live in the Corrèze. When we moved there in the autumn of 1995, he only had another two or three years to live and you could tell that his life had become a bit of a chore. But every now and then we would sit together to hear his tales of the war. Briefly, they reanimated him as nothing else could (apart from his periodic rants about ex-President Mitterand). As temporary mayor of the commune during the war, he led a dangerous double-life as courier for the Maquis. He told us once of being stopped at a Nazi roadblock when he was taking money to the freedom fighters. One can only imagine the terror.
And that’s all we can do really: use our imagination. Britain hasn’t really been invaded since William fit the battle of Hastings-o. Until secrets were de-classified, we never even know about the Nazi occupation of the Channel Islands. It was all kept hush-hush by the wartime government lest the truth should undermine national morale. Careless talk and all that.
Reading about what happened on Jersey and Guernsey only underlined that we don’t really know how we might behave in an extraordinary situation until it actually transpires. Similar kinds of things happened in the Channel Islands as they did here: on one side of the coin, acts of heroism; on the other side, acts of treachery.
My wife’s work as a therapist certainly confirms that whatever took place here during the occupation created many deep personal traumas that, in many cases, have never been fully addressed. When you consider that they’ve had the Prussians, the forces of the Kaiser and the Nazi hordes stomping across their territory in the space of less than 150 years, it’s hardly surprising that the French seem at times so wary of strangers. ‘Xenophobic’ is a word that has slipped into the odd conversation.
We were comparing experiences of friendship at breakfast. All four of us have plenty of French friends here, but we all complained of our inability to take that final step across the Great Divide. It’s as if every time you think that – this time – you’re really getting somewhere, a No Entry pops up and you take a hesitant step backwards. Of course, there are good reasons: all our cultural disconnections and a strong family-centric culture, certainly in rural France, which makes friendship more of a luxury than a necessity.
But it occurred to me this morning that my abiding sense of French resistance is connected to the French Resistance. We the rootless international settlers are really just the new invaders. If we sense a certain suspicion of our different ways and a reluctance to let us all the way into their hearts, is that so surprising? Let’s be thankful that they haven’t yet taken to blowing up our cars.