Post by kerouac2 on Dec 13, 2019 9:18:49 GMT
I hadn’t been to the ancestral village for about a year, and since my mother’s birthday was on December 6th, it seemed like a good excuse to go, now that family friend Gertrud has died and there is no one to look after the tombs. Like most villages in France, the cemetery in Batilly is on the outskirts, although over time the nearest house is now only about 50 metres away.
However, I drove into the village from the opposite end. In fact, for regions of nostalgia I left the autoroute early so that I could take the old small roads of my childhood. The exit for Fresnes-en-Woevre was the one I would take to visit my great uncle René before he was carted off to the nursing home in Messancy, Belgium where he died. He was my grandmother’s little brother and she was very close to him. He lived in Étain in a house that seemed so alien, because it resembled nothing in the area, and all of the houses of that part of town were the same, because in fact they were built by the U.S. Air Force in the 1950’s. The United States had a NATO base there until France left NATO in 1966 and an entire neighbourhood was built in a completely American style for the air force families. There are about a dozen streets that look like there were vacuumed out of Fresno, California. They look so wrong in that setting. I don’t know when the houses were sold to the local population, but there was not much that could be done to change them except to turn the big back yards into kitchen gardens. The French furniture looked out of place inside. I had to sleep in that house every now and then, and it was excruciating. I could hear Uncle René snoring through the walls, more like a sawmill than a human being, and the next morning he would invariably say “I didn’t sleep a wink last night, not more than 2 or 3 minutes.”
I no longer have to turn left towards Étain. In Fresnes-en-Woevre I have a second cousin, but I don’t know her address so no reason to stop. I turned right towards Warcq. Some cousin of my grandmother used to live there, that’s all I know. We would be on that road sometimes, and my mother would say to my grandmother “isn’t that where cousin so-and-so lived?” and my grandmother would agree. Mystery relatives.
Before long, I arrived in Conflans-en-Jarnisy with its claim to fame, the E. Leclerc hypermarket where the whole region does its shopping. It’s where you run into anybody from any other town in the area, and Gertrud would regularly say “I was at Leclerc and saw your Uncle René” even though René had no business being behind the wheel of an automobile. He had the eyesight of a mole and was a public danger. This is also the location of the local McDonald’s. If anyone had predicted that there would be one in this area some day, I would have said that they were crazy.
Conflans is where my grandfather was based in his career with the French national railways. There used to be a train from Conflans to Metz, and it stopped in Batilly. Now there is just a bus for passengers, even though the rail line is still used for freight. My grandfather was already retired when I was little, but we would go to the SNCF co-op sometimes to get cases of wine and lemonade. The lemonade was for the American grandchildren; otherwise he would have had no reason to buy such a thing. The bottles had swing-top stoppers with a rubber seal. I thought they were so cool, because we had nothing of the sort at home. The town is decorated (littered?) with memorabilia from both its rail and its mining past. The E. Leclerc car park even has a full sized locomotive from the 1950’s sitting in a flower bed. Otherwise, there are mining cars here and there as you drive through town. They have flowers in them in the summer.
I saw there was a new médiathèque in town, very flashy. It must have eaten up a considerable part of the municipal budget, even though I’m sure it was financed 80% by the department, the region, the national government and the EU. Whenever they are building such things, the information boards always proudly display the percentages out front. Most of the town is just dreary and not much has changed since my childhood. I saw that “La Station,” an old service station that had been converted into an ‘American Graffiti’ type snack shop, has now been abandoned. But it lasted about 20 years, impressive. It was probably killed by McDonald’s.
In Jarny, there is the turn to get to Labry, where my grandmother died in a nursing home. She was only there for about 2 months after being kicked out of the SNCF retirement home near Paris which was not equipped for nursing care. I will never turn on that road to Labry.
Then it was on to Doncourt, barely more than a hamlet, but it has its own claim to family fame. It has a little private airfield (“cow pasture”) where tiny planes fly. When my grandparents planned to come to California for a visit in 1970, neither had ever taken a plane before. My grandfather decided they needed to get ready for the big trip and go for a first flight. And so they got ready for a trip in a Boeing 747 by circling the fields over the various villages in a plane for 4 passengers. My mother was flabbergasted when they told her because she herself would never have boarded such a small plane. Little did she know that we would fly together in an 18-passenger Twin Otter from Djibouti to Aden across the Red Sea. I had a free ticket from Red Sea Airlines, but she had to pay $100 for a ticket since our itinerary had been disrupted. “I just want a ticket, I don’t want to buy the plane,” she protested.
Back on the road for part two shortly…