Our Daily Bread and a Horse’s Ass

Below is an excerpt from my book I Used to Be French: an Immature Autobiography. You can buy it on amazon here.

A little later, the old man harnessed his plow horse to the cart. The women climbed with great caution onto the wooden benches in the back, all three in their Sunday best, including hats, and leather shoes instead of the usual wooden clogs. The old man motioned me to the seat near him, up front. While this seemed the normal place for a boy, I was suspicious because he kept cackling unnaturally and his wife reprimanded him in dialect several times from the back of the cart. Before we had gone a hundred feet, the horse started blowing powerful and odoriferous farts right into my face. It never let off until we reached the church. The old man had deliberately fed him a breakfast of oats to which the beast was unaccustomed. Everyone thought that was a good joke but the old lady was concerned about my big city sensitivities. I just thought it was the old man who was the horse’s ass but his precise planning and his foresight impressed me all the same, not to mention his control over the animal’s gut.

A moral inquiry

Below is an excerpt from my book I Used to Be French: an Immature Autobiography. You can buy it on amazon here.

Note: I was born and reared mostly in Paris but I spent most summers in Brittany. Brittany summers left a deeper mark in me than the Paris school year.

In the Breton architectural fashion, my grandmother’s granite house shared a wall with the houses of two neighbors. On one side was the good looking old guy and his too virtuous old wife. On the other side of my grandmother’s house was a family of fishermen: old Pop, old Mom, grown daughter and grown son. They all lived in a single room that served as kitchen, dining room and bedroom. The parents shared a carved oak armoire-bed, accessible by climbing on a trunk and equipped with a sliding door to provide privacy. The adult children each had their small iron bed, placed at opposite corners of the room, I am pleased to report. There was no bathroom, of course, only an outhouse in the backyard. It was never scooped, never moved. It was surrounded by the most beautifully, healthy cabbage I have ever seen. The fisherman’s children never married. Perhaps they were too afraid of their parents; or, they liked each other too much. (But this is only hearsay.)

At the end of the dirt road, fifty yards away, lived the town ditch-digger and his large brood. The ditch digger’s boys were always hungry. They stole eggs, from wild birds’nests and from hen houses alike. They also picked wheat and toasted it in the fields, which was tolerated. In September, ripe hazelnuts were available for the picking. I don’t know what they did after September and I will never know because my family never stayed beyond that month. But school was back in session then, and there, they got at least one square a day.

Sometimes, we would climb over the priest’s orchard wall to steal his excellent pears. This happened less often than one might think because it presented moral problems: Everyone knew that the priest would not beat you hard if he caught you so, it was kind of unsporting to pick on him. And there was the issue of having to tell him in confession that you had stolen his pears. We discussed whether one would go to Hell for abstaining from confessing that single particular sin. There was no theological consensus.

Breton Religion

[Excerpt from Jacques Delacroix’s book of memoirs: “I Used to Be French: An Immature Autobiography.” Delacroix is looking for an agent, a publisher, or some sort of non-venal help.]

The church, the café, and the saints

There was no not going to mass except for the schoolteacher who could only play his part as a soldier of the secular Republic if he was an atheist. Mass always played out the same way: The notables’ families had their pews upfront, reserved by brass-plate names. Other families sat on benches wherever else they wanted but the women tended to position themselves near the front of the church, with the children, and the men gathered toward the back, near the main door. This was before Vatican II and Catholic Mass was interminable in this very religious part of France. It was also mostly in what I understand to have been despicable Latin, with some bad Ancient Greek mixed in. The sermon was in accented French rather than in local dialect, perhaps in part for the benefit of the outsiders, including baigneurs like me. The priest knew pretty well of what kind of sins his year-around parishioners were capable. He may just have let his imagination run a little wild in connection with the sins of the lightly clad baigneurs. Hence, he probably surmised they needed his sonorous sermons more than did the locals whose sins were mostly a little boring to his mind.

As the service droned on and thundered in turn, some old men, all widowers, would slip out the back and cross the square to the café. Little by little, in groups of two or three, for strength and courage, other men would join them in order of descending age. The last ones to leave were newlyweds whose young wives kept an eye on them above their shoulders, young wives who still thought they possessed a vulgar means of retorsion against their husbands embarrassing them before the community. By the time of the “Ite, misa est,” the only adult men remaining, in addition to the priest, were the Count and his relatives. I supposed these retired then to the manor’s grand salon to sip champagne (or, possibly, whisky; they were terribly Anglophile, or rather, Britophiles), while the common men threw a last one down the gullet at the café to conclude the weekly conversation. Continue reading