This is a guest blog entry written by my father James Bourhill- published author, history buff and lover of all things French. Its no surprise then that this encounter inspired him to write a contributing post for ‘Someone I Once Met’.
PROVENCE FRANCE. In a provincial village, there is not much movement between noon and three. After one too many ‘demis’ in the shade of the Plane trees in the square, I made my way along the narrow main street in the heat of the day. The old men who usually sit on the bench at the corner were upstairs, resting after a busy morning of watching the world go by.
On another small bench, where only the women sit, I passed an old dear wearing a purple top and a bright smile. Her ‘bonjour’ was particularly friendly so I asked if we had perhaps met before. “Do you know how old I am?” was the first thing she said. “Ninety eight”. Now in the French language, that’s a big number and difficult to comprehend. Quatre vingt dix uit ans literally means four twenties, ten and and eight. I thought I had misunderstood, but I had not.
As an amateur historian, I never miss an opportunity to question a person of this vintage about their life and times. “I suppose you were here during the war”, I said. “Both wars” she answered, “the 1914-1918 war and the 1939-1945 war.” Pointing to the lavender blue shutters behind her, she said, “I have lived here in this house all 98 years of my life”.
It requires a stretch of the imagination to picture the peaceful hills above Sainte Maxime and Saint Tropez as they were in August 1944. On what is known as the “Second D Day”, the Allies landed on the beaches and fanned out into the interior, assisted by the French resistance or the Maquis. The village of Plan de la Tour was one of the first to be liberated and Reine (her name literally means “Queen”) remembers the trucks and tanks rolling through the very same street where we now sat.
As if she was describing one of the many parades which mark the various festivals throughout the year, I could picture clearly the troops flirting with the girls as they plied them with food and drink. “They could not get enough of the little cups of coffee we handed to them” she remembered as if it was yesterday.
At the end of the street there is a little monument on which it is written “Ici tombé Charles Olivier” (here fell Charles Olivier). I always imagined that he had been killed in a fire-fight with the Germans as the Maquis drove them out of the village. But Reine knew Charles Olivier personally and told me how he had been executed by the Germans as a parting shot because he had stolen a chicken.
The church bells signalled that it was 3.00 pm. More and more people appeared on the street, they all greeted Reine with bisous (kisses). Clearly, she was the grandmother to them all. A chef from the restaurant in the square made his way home at the end of his shift. He and his Australian wife, a former dancer from the Moulin Rouge, are new to the village but that is another story.