Friday, 11 January 2008

Death In A Foreign Land

Today the father of our friend (and neighbour) died.

This is the second death in our village since we moved here and we are realising that there are different protocols associated with this in France. Wishing very much to fit in with the village way of life here, we are always aware that we are most probably falling short - but at least we are trying.

The health of our neighbour's Dad had been deteriorating fast over the last few days, and we were pleased to have been able to help (albeit in such a minor way) by looking after their little girl when necessary.

We heard today though that he had died this morning and on our return home this evening, we met friends and their family walking back down to their own house in the village. When (embarrassingly!) I asked if they were out for an evening stroll, they explained that they had just been to see our neighbour to offer their condolences.

We asked whether this would be appropriate for us to do - given that we were not such close friends as they were of the family. And we were told very clearly that it was normal for everyone in a village to do this, however distant the relationship. Our English reserve at times of grief was certainly, it seems, not the way here!

So that is what we did. Richard and I went indoors first and changed into dark clothes (we had noted that everyone had been dressed in black to visit, even the children) and then went over the road and spent a few minutes with the family. Our broken French was woefully inadequate to express our sorrow, but the sentiment was heartfelt.

Throughout this evening we have since observed a regular stream of visitors - and are thankful that we did not (unwittingly!) cause offence by 'not wishing to intrude'.
The first death was of the husband, father and grandparent of one of the main families in our little village - all of whom had welcomed unreservedly the new English family in their midst!

He was taken ill suddenly and when the ambulance did not arrive soon enough, the Doctor said he had to be taken to the hospital immediately. We realised that our car was the biggest and took out all the extra seats in the hope that he could travel lying down. Unfortunately it was still not possible. But his widow remembers even now that we tried - and we feel humbled by this.

When we were told that he had died and his body was laid out in his bedroom, we were shocked when asked if we wanted to go up to him. We could not imagine intruding on the family's time of grief, but now realise that this was wrong.

Unbeknownst to us, we were in fact being invited to take part in the vigil. It is normal here for friends and family to take turns spending time with the body (15 minutes each on average) throughout the night and day until the funeral. If only we had realised.
Tonight was the commune get together - to hear about the future plans for the villages and how much had been spent (and on what!) this past year. The fact that it also offers free booze and nibbles was of no interest what so ever....

There is an American who has had a house in our village for 10-15 years, and who lives here for about nine months of the year. Not the most 'fitting in' type of person you can meet, but she asked if she could come with us tonight.

Various people we knew introduced us as 'their friends from La Sesquière' - and then, after a slight pause, said 'And this is the American'.

So it is official! We are fitting in! And are not classified by our nationality - one up on the USA!!

When we first moved here, there were about 300 residents in our commune, and we were the first English family to arrive.

Nearly six years later there are over 500 people - and we are still the only English! Isn't that wonderful!!

Various people tonight expressed to us their disquiet about this increase in numbers - because the majority are outsiders. We, slightly sheepishly, mentioned - like us?! 'No, certainly not!' we were told. It seems we have 'joined in with the village as one of them' as against these incomers (from the Auvergne and even Paris!) who just keep to themselves!!

So we must be doing something right.......


Alex said...

A great post. Very touching.

Jacqui U said...


A general feeling of sadness is on us all today. It seems that a couple of close friends of the family died in a car accident at the end of December - at the age of 22.

Life and death are hard to comprehend sometimes.