11 Years in France

1963: the family moved from the damp Thames Valley (bad for asthma) to le Midi, buying land 10 km inland from Cannes, Alpes Maritimes, on the edge of the Mediterranean.

I started primary school at StMartin, a new school surrounded by fields. A few French children, but most of us spoke other languages at home: Arabic, Italian, Spanish, English Russian and others. The second most common foreign language will have been that of the travellers families we new as Gitan. Mme Pazzonni was our most patient teacher, teaching not only essential skills but also peaceful coexistance to nearly 50 children in the class ranging from ages 6 to 14: any one who couldn’t yet read and write joined our class.

I must have been about 7 when my best friend Abderazak (Abdul Rezzak?) taught me a few letters of his mother tongue, Arabic. (36 years later I went to the Persian Language Centre in Ankara to learn the rest of the alphabet…). It was also around that time we first experienced racism, understanding that – in the eyes of our teacher – we were not equal.

I have been told I’d not recognise where we grew up: ‘Les Amandiers’ was a 2 storey house built on land cleared of stones in medieval times by monks when they wanted to grow vines. The stones were then built into raised walls, dividing the land into relatively stone-free rectangles; we had four of them. When we first visited the land, as we drove up the track (later to become a road, …with traffic lights) past our closest neighbours, Mme Maillard called her husband “Viens voir, il y a une voiture!”. Our house and garden took up the front half of the land, the rest remaining virtually untouched, with wild flowers (grape hyacinths, several types of anemones, orchids, etc.) poppiing up in spring. The shepherd used to bring his flock to graze on the unfenced land, and occasional tortoises would visit.

On avait une tres chere voisine a cote de chez nous (entre Mouans-Sartoux et La Roquette). On passait des heures chez elle, avec ses poules et son chien Bayard. Et elle nous racontait ‘comment c’etait avant…’ C’est grace a elle que je n’ai pas totallement echoue mon oral d’Histoire! (au Bac j’ai rate en maths, faute stupide, donc tout plein de points perdus x4.  Avec 24 heures pour reviser un an d’histoire geo, c’etait une question de hazard. Le prof, un type plutot asocial, m’a demande ‘La France entre les 2 guerres’. Grace a Mme Maillard – j’ai pu lui dire que c’etait avec le Front Populaire de 1937 que pour la premiere fois les ouvriers ont eu des conges payes.) Mais elle nous a aussi raconte sa guerre; elle n’a jamais compris pourquoi on avait choisi d’apprendre l’allemand. Le chemin ou on habitait, devenu Route Thomas et Palanca, etait nomme apres deux hommes de La Roquette qui ont etes fusilles parce qu’une nuit pendant l’occupation le drapeau de la resistance avait remplace la croix gammee des Nazis au dessus de la maison qui etait devenu leur chef-lieu. Comme personne n’a denonce ceux qui l’ont fait, Thomas et Palanca ont ete fusilles ‘en example’… Tous ces petits evenements oublies, sauf dans les memoires de quelques uns.

I wonder how many of the 3 almond trees still blossom every spring.

5 brain operations took up the autumn term in 1966. Shunts for hydrocephalus were very new; ASBAH – in its first year – provided good support for my parents. I returned to school at the centre of the village of Mougins, on the highest part of the hill; on a good day we could see Corsica. The last term of primary school was shortened by the May 68 troubles: without petrol, we couldn’t go to school, and anyway all the teachers were on stike – but we didn’t understand what that meant till a few years later.

Middle school in Grasse (La Capitale Mondiale du Parfum; The two dozen perfume factories put the nice smells in the perfume bottles, and let the bad smells out into the town). 4 years ‘girls only’ at CES StHilaire, then on to the lycee mixte Amiral de Grasse. I’m told that too has much changed. Two good years in Section C, but with failing maths I had to abandon my Astronomy dream, finishing Terminale in D, Natural Sciences. . . . but that was once we’d moved to London.