Vive La Difference….but, we have far more in common than that divides us
100 years ago, the guns silenced, marking the end of the First World War. Today, in a sleepy little village in South West Rural France about 150 people from various countries marked that occasion in a manner not dissimilar to other events held elsewhere in Europe.
Confusingly for me, although the church bells rang out #ATouteVolee at 1100the chatter did not stop, and the hustle and bustle of the Autumn Fayre continued. As Martin and I walked up the high street he persisted in talking about something until I snapped “are you NOT going to observe a minute’s silence?”. He hadn’t realised it was 1100. We both noted that it was strange, but we figured the silence would take place at the start of the memorial event at 1130. But it did bother me….all my life I have stopped and taken that minute’s silence at 1100. So, I asked people “why not silence at 1100” and the answer was simply that, typically in France the memorial services are at 1100 but here in rural South West France there are other events going on so people are needed at more than one event, so the events are sometimes staggered. Notably, the Bastille Celebrations that should be on 14th July take place in Villefranche du Perigord on 13th July so as to not compete with the larger, neighbouring events.
Ah, so that answered my nagging question. Another difference was the lack of poppies, which of course are a Royal British Legion thing -intended to raise money for that particular cause. So the poppies were few and far between, and none to be sold in the preceding weeks of course. I did spot a few blue poppy shape stickers, which on research afterwards I realised are Bleuet de France – the French version of Poppies.
I still wore my perpetual bling crystal poppy brooch that I bought years ago – considering at the time that the cost of this would be my donation to the RBL for many, many years, but now actually in hindsight it is a good thing to have so I can mark 11th November in the way that I like to.
The memorial service was lovely – all in French of course, and I listened intently to see if I could pick up more of what was said that I had been able to during the one in May….a little bit more I think. Most poignant was the reading of the names of “Nos Morts” by a couple of young children – who proudly read aloud the names of those who had given their lives in the 1st and 2nd World Wars. I had a few tears with the emotion of it – just as I always have done on previous occasions. We are always reminded of the sacrifices made – no matter where we are in the world – on days like this.
After the main service we went over to “La Salle de Reunion” where the choir sang a song in French – it may have been a popular song – I do not know, it was not familiar, but it was lovely to listen to. Then the choir sang the British National Anthem – which made me stand tall and proud and I sang, albeit very quietly and awkwardly under my breath, feeling a bit out of place. Then, this was followed by La Marseillaise – the French National Anthem which then made me feel a little embarrassed that I do not know as single word of this iconic song!! So, I vowed to learn it by the next memorial event. In saying this to my friend who is in the choir, a conversation then arose by the end of which I had agreed to give the choir a go!! Oh dear – what have they let themselves in for? Still, this will be a good opportunity to learn some French, and integrate with some new people which is so important in such a small community.
What really struck me with this event is that there was maybe 150 people there – which represents quite a significant proportion of the local population. All those people turning out to show respect to the people who laid down their lives so we could stand here today. By comparison, the last Armistice Day I attended was in 2016, in Southampton – a huge city with a population of 254,000, and yet there were only about 20 people turned out at 1100 to stand in the rain and mark their respects. Admittedly, that was during a week day and not all employers would allow staff to just take their tea break outside – but at the time I was a bit of a rebel and just done my own thing anyway!!
I may have been feeling a particular need to show respect that year as it was the year that I finally went to visit the grave of my Great Grandad Hubert Doe in his final resting place at Cabaret Rouge Cemetery near Arras. His death in the 1st World War was what I now believe to be the trigger point for a whole load of weird family dynamics that subsequently occurred in our family. His death broke my Great Nan Louisa’s heart, and of course my Nan Winifred lost her dad as a young girl. Louisa then went on to marry a friend of his – Alfred Coggin. He had lots of issues from the war – probably shell shock, and became a not-so-nice step dad to Winifred and then later a dad to Stanley. We don’t think that he was much missed after he died in the 1930’s. Then Stanley grew up and joined the Royal Air Force and within a few flights was lost on a bombing raid to Mannheim May 19th 1942. The loss of first Hubert, then Alfred and then Stanley to Louisa and Winifred caused them to view boys as more precious than girls, which then in turn led to my own mum Patricia feeling less important than her brother as they grew up. Then even me as I grew up wondering why my brother could get away with so much more than I could. Of course, back in those days with the great British stiff upper lip, neither my Great Nan, or my Nan spoke about feelings which would have meant that all this strange stuff was never interpreted for what it was, just feelings of inadequacy were felt with no associated rationale. It’s only in recent years when me and Martin with our curiosity in war time history and my need to unpick and understand every complex reasoning behind behaviour, that we have perhaps unravelled the root cause of our own rich tapestry of crazy family life! We also came across this very poignant audio clip when digging up wartime history – it’s the sound of the bomber that Great Uncle Stanley made his last flight in – leaving the UK. It’s hard to not wonder what our family would have been like had that plane not been shot down that night. But we ALL have this shared history – every single one of us has someone in our past who was affected by those wars – and that has shaped who we are – whether for good or bad, and whether we like it or not.
It’s things like this that make me truly believe that we should not live our lives from behind a filter and we should open up and share our vulnerabilities and ask for help when needed – after all we are all human, and surely none of us sail through life without any assistance at all – even if that help is just the occasional wind behind our sails – encouraging us to continue forward – or maybe choose another course.
And that’s why I found myself doing something that I rarely do these days – sticking up for someone I don’t even know in real life on Facebook. This lady blogs about life as a mum, but unlike some of the perfect air-brushed yummy mummy bloggers, she tells it how it really is. And one of her posts had been a hilarious account of how she tried to get her boobs to fit in to a backless bra. A very unkind other mummy had really had a go at her for doing this, and in reading the resulting onslaught I felt compelled to express my own opinion which was quite simply “she is writing about HER life! And if you don’t like it then unfollow her blog, don’t read it”. And that is exactly how I feel. We all only have one life, and the way we life it will determine lots of things, including our own happiness, and if people don’t like us for living our “real, unfiltered life” what should we do? Pretend that our life is different, and more appealing to the people who don’t like us for our “real life”. Or, find people that do like us for living our own “real, unfiltered life”. For me it’s got to be the latter – I would get totally exhausted if I were to be living two life’s – it’s hard enough living one. And the people that like the way I live my life will enjoy being with me and want to spend time with me, and the people that don’t like it will drift away from my life. But, my life – the good, the bad, and the ugly – will be lived – true to myself, real, and unfiltered. ( if you fancy following her she is blogging on Facebook as – Knee Deep in Life )
So, our new life in France is sometimes challenging, and sometimes in finding our way we express frustrations, and I suppose sometimes that might seem as if we might prefer to be living our old lives in the UK. But, that’s not the case – we love our lives in France – we love the simplicity of life – although sometimes it is that simplicity that drives us crazy, we love the natural beauty of the countryside – although the extremes of weather that allow that beauty are sometimes worth grumbling about in a typically British fashion, and we love the slow little village that we have chosen as home, that gets so sleepy in Winter that we have to resort to playing scrabble!! And the people that are all co-existing around us – many of them have been on the same journey, some of them are still wondering why they made that jump across the channel 11 years ago, some will feel that their lives are now truly French, and some will be one foot in the tunnel ready to hop back if Brexit hits the fan.
All of us humans are unique, but as the late, great Jo Cox (murdered MP) once said – “We have far more in common than that divides us” so I think we owe it to each other to embrace our differences and allow each other to be ourselves.
©Sharon Rees-Williams – wordpress.com/thislittlepieceof.land, 2018
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