Saturday, 12 March 2011

Blood and vanity

Carcassonne is:

1. A medieval fortress-city (above) almost the size of Windsor Castle, to a large extent a fanciful reconstruction by a 19th Century French architect called Viollet-le-Duc

2. An unexciting modern French town trailing down from the fortress heights like a moth-eaten musketeer's cloak (and if you're asking whether it's the cloak or the musketeer that's moth-eaten, the answer is it's both)

3. An airport, a lifeline to Blighty for those that need it, where you hear more English spoken than French.

I don't why I'm telling you this, because Carcassonne has got very little to do with what follows. When I first came to live in France 20 years ago, there wasn't much to keep body and soul together, so I signed on at an estate agency, innocent of any idea that in France there is no one so vile and universally despicable as an estate agent. I stayed the course for about 18 months until I couldn't put up with it any longer.

I learnt my way about the area by driving about at my expense taking in properties for sale. I got an extra 5% commission on properties I took in. These were always called by the name of the vendor. One was called Schleintzauer, the then owner. It was a two-story house, stone-built with about half an acre of scrub adjoining on the edge of a hamlet called La Garrigue. It was a waterless place, alive and beautiful with cystus, rosemary and wild thyme in spring, but otherwise a hill-top desert with only breathtaking views over the Languedoc plain below and the thin burnished gold line of the distant Mediterranean beyond to commend it.

The front door of Schleintzauer, surrounded by a Passiflora (passion fruit) vine and with panels of coloured glass, opened into a rather nasty general purpose kitchen-dining-sitting room with a floor of what I learned to call ciment fondu, a smooth concrete. Exceptionally, it was a wet day when I took Schleintzauer into the listings. I questioned M. Schleintzauer, a man originally from Alsace, about a large dark patch on the floor a couple of metres from the door. Was it damp? I asked. (It seemed unlikely, given the arid La Garrigue climate.) It came and went, he said. He didn't know what it was. He couldn't get rid of it and it wouldn't go. If I came back on a fine day it would probably have gone. It wasn't anything to bother about.

Eventually Schleintzauer sold, I can't remember to whom.

Some years later I started a new choir. The nucleus was formed of people who had already sung under my baton. We searched about for a name, and a woman called Marcelle suggested, prosaically, Le Choeur des Hauts Cantons, The Choir of the High Cantons. The term 'canton' usually suggests Switzerland to me, but in the south of France it's used to describe collectively the scattered settlements in this very hilly and sometimes mountainous region. Marcelle's suggestion was adopted and Le Choeur des H C eventually grew from the initial 18 members to just over 50 at full strength.

I got to know Marcelle quite well. She became Deputy Treasurer, a post with no functions and no responsibilities. She was a short, dumpy woman of about 65, with a voice the better for being masked by all the other altos round her. She laughed a lot, walked with a limp, had only once been out of the region, on a coach tour of the Tyrol, spoke Occitan, the local sub-language - and as a teenager had lived at La Garrigue.

Yes, I said, speaking to her once, I knew La Garrigue quite well, especially the house M. Schleintzauer used to live in, the one on the edge of the hamlet. A sad house, Marcelle said. She'd lived nearby, but it was because of what happened there that her father had taken her away to live near La Salvetat, miles away to the north.

The story came out. When the occupying Nazis moved north in August 1944, summoned by Hitler to defend northern France from the invading allies, the local resistance fell on the columns of Germans. Only they weren't Germans, Marcelle said, they were Hungarians and Cossacks and Russians. (Marcelle didn't even call them soldats, soldiers: she called them soudards, a derogatory word meaning irregular military thuggish riff-raff.) They'd been sniped at by resistance fighters on the rocky road up to La Garrigue. As a deterrent from further attacks, they'd seized several innocent people from the hamlet, dragged them into the nearest house and had shot them, together with the house owners. When the column had passed, Marcelle's father was among those who recovered the bodies. There was a massive pool of blood beyond the front door. In the August heat it was vital to bury the bodies as quickly as possible. And blood dries quickly.

The slaughter house was Schleintzauer, as you've guessed. No one lived in it thereafter for years. It has changed hands many times since.

As I drove through La Garrigue on my way back from Carcassonne yesterday, I noticed 'Schleintzauer' was for sale again. It was a damp day, with heavy clouds scudding across from the Mediterranean. I wondered if that dark patch was still showing.


Dave said...

I must it was only when I read 'Narrow Dog To Carcassonne' ( that I first heard of the place.

*eyes damp patch on study ceiling with suspicion*

Christopher said...

Goodness, that was quick, Dave. Did you know Mig (see 'Let out to play' on sidebar) owns one twelfth of a narrow dog?

What's been going on upstairs at your place, then?

Christopher said...

...and what are you burying in that thumbnail photo of you in your garden?

Dave said...

The hot water tank leaked and needed replacing.

I'm digging a hole for a plant. Honestly.

Rosie said...

Wow, goosebump story. You mean you never pick up bits of chain mail when in Carcassonne?

Hector said...

I'm waiting with bated breath for the second story to emerge from chez Schleintzauer!!

Christopher said...

Rosie: No, the postman delivers them, wretched things.

Hector: So am I.

Z said...

*goes off to find a copy of Tess of the D'Urbervilles to remind herself why that's what she thought of when she read Dave's comment*

Christopher said...

Yes, absolutely, Z. A passionate man. Or perhaps you have a DVD of La Fanciulla del East?

Christopher said...

Hector again: I see. I SEE. I wrote 'two-story house' instead of 'two-storey house'.

*writes out I must learn to distinguish between 'story' and 'storey' 500 times.*

Hector said...

Sorry Chris, just can't help it - this editing thing gets into one's blood. When the time comes I just hope my epitaph is correct - if not I'll just have to come back and correct it myself. Now THAT would be a story!

Rog said...

Brilliant piece of writing!

Christopher said...

If it's personal epitaphs you after, Hector, can I suggest you look no further than Lydian Airs, e.g:

E, he was thin, Lord

('No relation of Dave's', 11.02.11)


Qu'en es anado al Paradis
Al cèl ambé sas cabras

[May he have gone to heaven in the sky, with his goats]

('Folk flock focus', 03.03.11)

Thanks, Rog. So kind.