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Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Making of a Child Psychiatrist: (15) France 2

The Veyssieres kept chickens, and it was a new experience to have them follow you wherever you roamed in the garden. They always knew when it was feeding time, and gathered in a clucking mass shortly before. Oddly, they did not seem to be overly perturbed when Monsieur appeared with an axe, about once a week. Certainly, they scattered when he tried to catch one, but it seemed to be a game (with a rather unfortunate ending). I had never seen a chicken beheaded with one swift chop onto a large block of wood. Intrigued and revolted at the same time, I remember forcing myself to watch as the poor headless thing was released to run around in circles for a short while before falling over exsanguinated. The chicken was then hung up on a hook on the wall of the cool dark barn, just down two steps out the back door. The bikes were kept in this shed, so the evidence of death was there for me to see each day, until Madame decided it was time for a roast. I struggled. Not being a country boy, not understanding the basics of life really, I initially found it hard to approach the roast with relish. But..., welcome to the real world, pauvre petit Anglais!
To be truthful, there were few things that I could not eat. I am not sure whether Madame was being careful, or whether they just ate fairly simply, but there was only one time when I really had to decline – with very sincere apologies. Madame had organised a special treat – calf’s cheek – to be sautéed lightly. I just could not imagine myself eating this pure white fat, and had to ask for ‘un petit morseau de pain, et peutêtre votre confiture d’orange’ (ie bread and your (special) marmalade). She was crestfallen, I was embarrassed, but knew I would be even more so if I was to be sick.
Over the latter weeks, we attended a number of extended, and large, family events around the area, and because it was summer, and full of fête days, the food was in abundance, but with little that I felt I had to avoid. Mostly, I was a ravenous 15 year old, doing more exercise than I had ever done, beginning to become tanned, and beginning to sound very French – even if some words in an excited conversation escaped me. The grape harvest had led to new wines, presumably made on the property, or at least locally. So I began to develop a taste for the wines of Southern France (slightly watered down), much to the amusement of the Uncles and Aunts.
Summer also meant weekend fête days for towns, with a carnival atmosphere, roundabouts and sideshows. We toured from one to another. I am not sure where I had learned the basic skill (maybe at ‘Dreamland’, the amusement park in Margate), but I seemed to be quite good at shooting galleries, and often returned home with assorted dolls and French sweets. Jacques was better at cycling, but I seemed to a better shot. On occasion we went to these en famille, but mostly we cycled, often in a gang of cousins and cousins.
Because Jacques was that bit older and building towards a driving licence, and related to the fact that all his family members of the same age were riding motorized bicycles or Mopeds – called Mobylettes, Jacques (somewhat against his parents’ wishes) managed to gain access to one, and began to ride up and down our stretch of straight road. This was serious stuff. Sometimes I got to travel pillion with one of the cousins and, towards the end of my stay, I got to practice on this exquisite piece of machinery. Bliss. The feeling of power travelling at about 20Kms an hour was exhilarating, and I promised myself that at some stage in my life I would gain access to this mode of travel.
From then on we travelled to the next two fête days in style. In those days no-one thought to wear crash helmets, so we reveled in that feeling of the wind through our hair and clothes. I am sure Madame et Monsieur were very anxious, and after my bicycle accident, they must have wondered just how much of me they were going to be able to send home to my parents. But no harm was done, unless you count the implantation of the thirst for motorized transport. As an act of homage, in the summer of 1966, Jan and I, just over one year married, drove our Vespa 150cc down D940 on our way to the Pyrenees and Barcelona. We stopped to look over the old place, and bring back memories. It conjured a time of sun and freedom and happiness.
Just a small coda. Monsieur Veyssierre drove me back to Paris, sitting importantly in the front seat of his Peugot 403. As I remember it we chatted amicably for most of the trip, with my now fluent of somewhat simple French. He put me on the train for the Channel Ferry back home. On board, I had been under instructions to purchase a bottle of spirits and a carton of cigarettes for my mother. Sitting on a seat on the deck with case and my loot, I realized that the whole transaction was done in French. The pale tubby English boy with a residual depression and halting French had been transformed over six weeks into a happy, confidant, deeply bronzed, slightly grubby (and very smelly, it turned out) copy of a French adolescent.
Clearly, my perhaps slightly romanticized memories of that summer in France have stayed with me for over 50 years. I have a fondness for French food and wine, for the language, for the subtlety of French films. I have in my head what I call my Treasure Chest of French. Many words and phrases have disappeared, and I am sure my second language is now a bit arcane and my accent faded, but each time we have been back I have been able almost immediately to recall words and phrases sufficient to manage a daily routine. We have taken opportunities to go back to France on many occasions over the years, introduced our children to French culture, and encouraged at least one of them to have a long term French pen friend. I have a deep respect for French people and their maintenance of their language and culture in a modern world, a European Economic Community whose Lingua Franca is English, and an online community whose language is American.
I think I grew up that summer. Without knowing it, my time became an existential adventure. We were, we did, we enjoyed; my soul became a little bit country French. The result was not only a lifting of my depression, but a building of a particular form of strength. Sadly, I am not sure that I missed my family very much. Yes, I thought about them, and I wrote a series of letters to my mother (at least one of which has survived to the present, helping me to regain some sense of that time). I guess I was ready to go back to school, and had grown a maturity that allowed me to take on the mantle of being in the sixth form. I was much clearer about what I wanted in life, and this was despite my rather strange brush with French Medicine. I believe I began a life journey to gain an acceptance of things foreign, and different cultural norms, which has contributed to my being able to accept interpersonal and cultural difference in my psychiatric work, and put my feet into the shoes of ‘the other’. People are. They come from where they come from. They have their own peculiar forms of baggage, based in their developmental, family and cultural background. I may be able to join with them successfully for a brief time. I may be able to help them find a new path.

I think there was a downside to my holiday in France. I had always been a bit isolated and singular, gaining friends in ones and twos, but not necessarily relishing large groups or needing too much of a social life. I think France reinforced my ability to be comfortable in being alone. It was not so much that it taught me I could survive anything life could throw at me; rather, I was there, it was a fascinating adventure, we had fun, and I thrived.

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