Even in the middle of nowhere, there are interesting human beings with sound ambitions and outrageous pasts. It’s just a question of being nosey enough to ask. But an interest in market research and the private person is just as valuable as studying public figures. Dégas, after all, made a career out of it.
We’ve had a change of bakery here in my nearest village. This is only the second time in the last 25 years, so it’s something of an event. The new hubby and wife team of Fred & Lillie have been launched into our small community, and already it’s obvious they’re “a birrof a laugh like” as they say in Liverpool.
When I originally pitched up here, the lady running the boulangerie was called Sylvie. I used to call her The Fourth Ronette, because she had a beehive hairstyle that reached almost to the ceiling. It must’ve taken her hours each morning to prepare, but it was so true to the girl-group tradition, I always expected to find one day that her hubby-baker was Phil Specter. Or that she was bald, and the hairstyle was a bread trestle she sprayed black.
Her other half, however, never appeared in the daylight. Perhaps he was a Transylvanian Count, I don’t know: but he only ever baked three things – pain, baguette and croissants. His successors – now leaving to teach French baking to Panamanian students – broadened the choice quite a bit. But the Fred & Lillie desire to make an even more eclectic offer has taken less than a week to show itself. I could be putting on a few pounds in the coming months. They give good pastry, as the Americans would say.
And in other news, Valu and Pepito have been granted permission by the Mairie to rent the larger part of their new go-ahead venture, the construction of a small mini-mall just across from the Salle des Fetes. The Mayor wants the two-storey building to offer residents a broader choice of fresh food, with apartments for the elderly so they can have constant easy access to it. Valu (without question a born retailer) is full of plans for deliveries, better ranges and local cheeses.
The mall will replace a row of three old houses which were mobile homes, in the sense that they moved alarmingly from season to season and were – in even sense – even more than they were cracked up to be. In one of these lived the town character, a 92 year old bloke who had once been De Gaulle’s chauffeur.
After the Wehrmacht swept effortlessly across Norther France and into Paris in 1940, he drove old Bigconk down to Bordeaux, where the general tried to persuade Daladier and the other traitors to fight on. It becoming quickly obvious that they thought De Gaulle was barking, the chauffeur then drove the BigYin out of the city and further north to a deserted beach, where a British seaplane flew him to exile in Blighty.
His boss disappeared over the horizon, and our hero found himself with a large limo, half a tank of petrol, and a heart full of communist zeal. He drove south until the gas ran out, then buried his uniform and walked the rest of the way – 250 miles – back home here. There he spent the war as a mechanic sabotaging conscripted vehicles, blowing up trains and shooting Gestapo officers as a senior member of the local Maquis.
When I met him, the former assassin was still repairing and driving vintage cars. Sprightly and dapper in a jaunty cap and leather blouson, he took me for a spin in his petit diable, a 1965 MGC British Leyland sports car. “It was a heap of merde,” he told me, “but I replaced everything”. It must have pained an unswerving communist to say that. He drove with calm confidence at 130 kph along narrow country roads, swearing at farmers and old ladies as he went. I aged about 23 years in 40 minutes.
What a character.
The old guy was introduced to me by my closest chum here Leo Jacobs, himself now 82 and born-again as a Catholic, but also once an anarchist-leaning communist broadcaster and journalist in 1960s Amsterdam. So many of us old farts drone on about the Sixties, but Leonardo really was in the thick of it. The white bicycles, Danny Cohn-Bendit, Tariq Ali, Theo van Gogh, the provos….he knew all of them.
Later he became Managing Director of Amersterdam radio, in between teaching film at the local Universities. For many years he was a reviewer of all things bright and beautiful, and thus able to command the best tables and free seats in the city. But he’s not a champagne socialist: Leo is a bloke who loves creative people, and if champagne comes along with the deal, then that’s fine. Nowadays he lives very simply.
Leo and his wife Tini go back to their warm Amsterdam flat during the winter. She makes the most historic minestrone soup on the planet, but when they’re away the main thing I miss is Tuesday blokey suppers at the local cantina with Leonardo. There we can be as open-minded and incorrect as we like over a steak-frites and local robust plonk.
The other thing I miss is Tini’s unconscious talent for English that is not actually fractured, just more kind of badly sprained here and there. She has an excellent eye for furniture and fabrics, one of her hobbies being the sort of patchworks that suggest there’s a psychedelic element in her past somewhere. I was admiring one of these wall hangings one day in their cosy home here.
“Did I tell you I have been exposing myself?” she volunteered, without any overture.
“You have?” I replied, “did they let you off with a fine?” She gave me one of her blank blinks.
“I mean I am becoming an exhibitionist,” she didn’t explain. My eyebrows rose a little further.
“I admire your chutzpah,” said your correspondent, “but isn’t it a little late for such a radical career change?”
“No no no no,” she countered, “it is always good the retrospective to have”.
Tini’s French is near-faultless. From this she had learned ‘exposition’ and ‘exhibition’ as nouns, but not entirely grasped that as verbs in English they can get a person arrested. So her account of exhibiting her work came out as the desperate confession of a pervert.
And there the circle completes. For as a young girl, Tini polished her French while working as an au pair….for the De Gaulle family.
It’s a small but infinitely various world.