Chapter 5 (Part 3) — One year after

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Le château at Varenne-sur-Tèche, seen from the park

The following year Gaëtane invited me to come and stay with her old aunt, Tata, that is Mademoiselle d’Equevilley at the château d’Equevilley. I had then completed one year of my French studies at Lund University. I never did get to be a social worker – socialkurator. After my seven months in France, I was in love with the French language and all I wanted to do was study French.

We were invited for dinner one evening in Luxeuil by Gaëtane’s father when we were going to the Casino with her fiancé, whose name I believe was Jean-Luc, and her brother Alain who was now 16. Monsieur Spach, as I always called him, had indeed invited Gaëtane and me with his wife to the Casino for New Year’s when I spent les fêtes with them as a 19-year-old student. I don’t remember how that evening played out but it was a nice gesture of Gaëtane’s father. I remember wearing my new dark green taffeta dress that Gaëtane had helped me sew on the treadle sewing machine chez Grand-mère, but that is a whole story.

So in 1954 I was invited to the château d’Equevilley by Gaëtane. Her fiancé was staying there too. It was never clear to anyone why and how Tata accepted this however. She might just have been quite senile at this time. There were lots of rooms but I am not sure if they shared a bedroom without Tata’s knowing about it or if they kept up appearances. Oh, carefree, flighty and charming Gaëtane!

Monsieur Spach, on our visit, was very interested in what literature we studied in my classes. It was fun talking to him about Daudet and Maupassant, Balzac and Stendhal. He knew a lot about French literature, it seemed, and it made up for having been treated condescendingly by his young Swedish wife during my seven months as a stagiaire. This is the French term for practical work that prepares you for studies, or that is part of the studies to prepare you for a profession.

That night, after the Casino, Gaëtane and I shared the bed in the big attic room that had been mine the year before. I found it odd to share a bed with Gaëtane, and also to get back to my old room, but it was a big bed and it didn’t disturb my sleep.

From that second visit to the Casino with Gaëtane’s fiancé I merely remember that I danced a lot, not with Alain fortunately, but mostly with a friend of Jean-Luc’s, a very forgettable young man. He took me out with friends of his to a lake a couple of days later. We spent all day out, boating and swimming and when I got back for dinner, Tata, the only name the one surviving aunt was ever known by, called me une créature for having spent the whole day out with one to her  unknown young man. I was a little put off by this, but Gaëtane told me absolutely not to worry. That just means that you are now definitely a member of the family, she said.

Gaëtane and I would go swimming and sunbathing at a little river with Alain. I was reading Cyrano de Bergerac, an excellent play by Edmond Rostand. I felt I had to go on doing some studying even during my vacation (Swedish puritanism!) I asked Gaëtane what a ‘bistouri’ was. She explained: an operating knife. Another time I asked her again what a bistouri was and she said ‘I already told you it’s an operating knife’. I still don’t know what business an operating knife had to be repeatedly mentioned in Cyrano de Bergerac, but I do remember how Gaëtane was my dictionary during those weeks in Equevilley. And, especially when I didn’t see the two words in writing together, Iit clearly took me two times to make me remember the word.

And young Alain, 16 years old, called me ‘ma beauté’. ‘Oui, ma beauté’. ‘Bien sûr, ma beauté’– trying to sound like a grownup, certainly.

Tata had the most wonderful strawberries and a big potager – vegetable garden. Her strawberries were the best I’ve ever tasted. But usually when we were over there out of Rara’s sight munching strawberries to our hearts’ content, we would suddenly hear her cane striking the stone slabs on the terrace ‘Sortez de là. Ne mangez pas mes fraises. Venez ici tout de suite!!!’ She knew well where we had disappeared to.

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I had planned all along on going to a pension de famille after a few weeks at the château in Equevilley, and so Tata went through Le Figaro every morning to look for suitable pensions for me. She knew I didn’t have much money so she ruled out the expensive ones. She was sitting there in the entrée outside the huge kitchen reading les petites annonces and saying ‘Ça, c’est pas pour vous’ and ‘Ça c’est pas pour vous’ and one day she said ‘Ça, c’est pour vous’. Hurray! A letter was written, Gaëtane helping. As a polite letter ending, she taught me to write: ‘Veuillez agréer, Chère Mademoiselle, l’expression de mes sentiments les meilleurs.’ – a formula that I have considerably abbreviated since then.

The pension was north of Vichy, in Varenne-sur-Tèche at the château of Mademoiselle des Chaux and it was indeed not expensive. I was there all alone at the beginning and Mademoiselle des Chaux and I shared the big table in the impressive dining room all by ourselves. Her old father was alive but I never saw him. A maid brought me breakfast in my room and a big pitcher of hot water for my morning washing. There was a shower in my room but no hot water, so it was not of much use, not to me.

It got to be August however, and little by little other guests started arriving, not very sophisticated, since it was an inexpensive pension, but it was nice not to have to converse all alone with Mademoiselle during every meal. I remember teaching some of the guests how to play canasta in the evenings.

Photo taken on one of my walks through the beautiful park — aperture clearly set for the dark trees.

I could take the bus into Vichy so I was not absolutely isolated out in the countryside. And I loved to take walks in the large and beautiful park and also around the neighborhood. I borrowed a bicycle to get to the river Tèche to go swimming and I wasn’t too bored. I guess I did some reading too. I had certainly brought more books than Cyrano de Bergerac.

The most memorable event from this several weeks ‘stay in Varenne-sur-Tèche was a grand dîner I was invited to via Mademoiselle des Caux’s cousin, Jean de la Villette (I think that was his last name), a young baron who had another small château near by, but who drove the tractor himself. He would often take me to le club de sporting in Vichy to the swimming pool, where you had to be a member or invited by one, and I got to know a friend of his, Roger. a young count whose last name I don’t remember — de something or other of course. Jean was a baron but this Roger was un comte.

Jean and Roger had two lady friends from French Algeria who claimed to be widows after officers who had died in the service of their country in Indochina. Big joke! The young ladies who were school teachers of some kind, had clearly set out on an adventure to have fun in Vichy. They were Annie and Paulette. But the bit about the widows and officers in Indochina don’t believe anyone took very seriously.

The funny thing was that the two young ‘widows’, les veuves joyeuses, never went swimming. They were lying on the tiles surrounding the pool, sunbathing, but they would never go into the water. Oh well, I guess we all have different ways of enjoying a swimming pool.

One day as we were all out in Jean’s and Roger’s cars, we stopped at a place by the river Allier where it was deep enough to go swimming. And that’s what we did. Annie and Paulette, however, did not even sample the water to pretend it was too cold or whatever. So the three of us, the two baron, the count and I, the Swedish freak, had a nice and cool swim and two ladies were just watching. Oh well, make-up and coiffure obligent.

We ended up in a café in Vichy with one more comte, one that I didn’t know. There had clearly been some planning going on. We were short of one gentleman so this comte was going to be for me. I listened to him trying to drag me and I decided in two seconds that I was not going to be dragged (draguée). Oh, he was playing the charmer and the count, but it just didn’t click with me. I didn’t have any use for a count who is out for a fling, and so we parted company with a clear notion that this was the end of the non-affair. Did they really think that I was in a pension de famille looking for a count?

However, there were other events than swim or no-swim Algerian young ‘widows’ and a smug count.

Annie one day invited me to come to Alger to be her guest the following summer. She said ‘Sérieusement, je vous invite.’ I remember our being in their hotel room and Annie doing something to her extraordinarily well manicured and polished nails. Why she invited me I’ll never understand. I barely knew her. To make a good impression maybe? I wondered for a second how I could get out of this invitation, but it occurred to me that there was an easy answer. I said ‘Thanks a lot, Annie, that’s very nice of you, but next year I’ll have finished my French studies and I’ll have to go to England before taking up English as my second major.’ So that settled that.

The following summer I did go to a little town very close to Cambridge as a non-paying guest in a family and I had a wonderful time. I had just enough money left for pocket money and I traveled by boat from Esbjerg on the west coast of Denmark to Harwich far out north of the mouth of the Thames. The whole trip cost me very little. But that is another episode.

I am not quite sure why I was invited to this fancy dinner and dance with counts and barons, but there I was. The château was a Sleeping Beauty castle, even though a minor one, south of Moulins, quite a distance from Vichy.

Fortunately I had that cocktail dress that Gaëtane had helped me make in Luxeuil the year before (on Grand-mère’s  treadle sewing machine). It was dark green taffeta and it was actually very nice. Gaëtane had even said ‘No, we don’t need a pattern (patron). I’ll help you cut it.’ And wow, she did!

I wore it many times in Sweden and elsewhere. There was a large stain in the taffeta that was barely visible and I used to kid about how it was… “champagne from France, so I want to keep it”. The stain really was from the New Year’s visit to the Casino with Gaëtane’s father and Ulla, and it really was champagne. But since it didn’t really show, I didn’t even bother having the dress dry cleaned.

However, I remember vividly that both Annie and Paulette had bought new dresses (no treadle machine dresses there!) in suitable black and white, since they were posing as merry widows.

After a little apéritif before dinner, the maître d’hôtel opened the doors to the dining room (or should I say dining hall) and announced ‘Mademoiselle est servie’.  Mademoiselle was Roger’s cousin Chantal from a nearby château, who was the hostess for the evening, since his parents had left the premises to the younger generation. There were probably about twenty of us and it was all very elegant. I am sure the food was delicious, but I don’t think I noticed.

Later on in the evening, after a lot of dancing, Roger dragged me away into another room that we emerged from with lipstick on his collar (as Paulette had pointed out, said he later), ‘Aha’, thought I, ‘so that’s why I was invited. One woman isn’t enough for this count. Difficult to slap the face of a count and a host, I guess. I suppose I thought he was about to show me his stamp collection!!! Hmm.

We suddenly got into a great number of cars and went driving all over the neighborhood. We drove around on small roads at high speed for quite a while and everybody seemed to think it was the greatest fun. Then, as suddenly as it started, we got back to the dancing in the château. Oh, la jeunesse dorée! 

How that evening ended I don’t remember, but after that I never saw Roger again. Nor Annie or Paulette.  And that was a good thing. The whole thing had become a little bit embarrassing. Someone must have taken me back home though, and I guess it must have been Jean de la Villette. Oh, aristocracy, the once beautiful flower, maybe, abut now a bit wilted.

Continued: Chapter 6 (Part 1) Studies and an interlude about World War II