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January 13, 2011


My three year old brother Jacques and I, four, were becoming a liability for our parents’ work in the French Resistance. We witnessed too many goings on, on a practically daily occasion and couldn’t be trusted to know what to say and above all what NOT to say to our visitors. Our father’s widowed aunt who lived on her own in Burgundy had offered to help look after us if necessary.

Mother’s work at the village Mayor’s office enabled her to obtain travel permits and we soon found ourselves on a railway voyage that was to end in Montargis, in the heart of Burgundy, where the aunt’s daughter lived. Although mother had said we were going there because it was safer for us, the same night we arrived the sirens went off and we ended up diving for the air-raid shelter just before the bombs came down. My brother and I were very relieved because we had been having pumpkin soup for our supper and neither of us could bear to swallow the sweet gritty orange mulch, no matter how much coaxing or threatening.

Mother seemed to disappear the next morning, she hadn’t wanted to provoke tears as she was leaving and, all of a sudden, we were just the two of us, on our way to unknown territory with a mountainous aunt who smelt of garlic and spoke in a very coarse burgundian accent. She was taking us to her home, a one up, one down diminutive cottage in the deepest part of the country. We were very tearful of course but Tante Irène was a darling and adored us.



Bewildered and clinging to each other, we were taken on another train journey. Once the train stopped at Toucy, the nearest market town to her home, a horse and cart was waiting for us, driven by an acquaintance. Tante Irène and the strange man started talking in a local patois we couldn’t fathom out…..but there again, we were used to hearing foreign talk back in Normandy when the visitors came to see our parents. We couldn’t help wailing for our mother but the man decided to give us turns at driving the horse and we got lots of smelly cuddles from the aunt. That made things much better and we soon calmed down! Some long time later, we finally rode down a very bumpy narrow lane, past three lonely cottages and, at the end of the path, stopped outside the tiniest house we had ever seen. I wondered how Tante Irène was going to squeeze through the door!

Tante Irène may well have been living on her own but she had many visitors, principally nephews and cousins who were working in the neighbouring fields, all too young to be doing a man’s job. They’d been up at dawn, gone out with little breakfast and, by mid morning, needed a hearty meal which the “aunt” could guarantee. She had a reputation for being mean with her resources but she knew how to feed a starving lad. She kept chickens, geese, ducks, a couple of pigs and a goat, she ran a good vegetable garden and had some fruit trees. The visiting lads helped her with the heavy chores and she made sure to repay them with sumptuous food.

My brother Jacques and I

My brother Jacques and I

Our arrival caused little upset with her routine as we were very much left to our own devices. We were soon adopted by the lads who treated us like their own young siblings. Most days, we rode on the heavy horses and helped with the animals. We went snail hunting after a rainfall and were taught how to catch frogs for supper. By midday, we were often so tired we could hardly eat our lunch and the aunt insisted we had an afternoon sleep. We had to climb the steep outside steps to the one bedroom we shared with her. Two enormous roll top beds filled the room, one for her gigantic frame, the other for the two of us.

Many months went by when we learnt to speak in a coarse burgundian drawl, eat most things with our fingers, drink well water tinted with local red wine, wear the same clothes for days on end, sleep sometimes five or six to a bed when there was a visit from the family in Montargis. We didn’t have to wash every day as we were going to get dirty again straight away and we spent most of our time outdoors. We got up early and all went to bed at sundown. The aunt always made sure we knelt down by the bed and said prayers after her before climbing in for the night.…and she insisted we confessed all our sins! The first problem was that we didn’t know what a sin was. Then, we had to wrack our brains to find our daily sin to confess, bare knees on the hard floor, hands joined in prayer, eyes tightly shut…..Even when we had been naughty (like the day we jumped on the big puffed up eiderdown on our bed…. and it burst!) she would love us and laugh till she shook all over.

When mother came back for us, we were proper little strangers and we’d grown shy of her. She looked so sad and preoccupied, father had been captured and disappeared, and it made her cry in the night. It was so hard to leave the aunt!

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Killian Gobin-Gallono January 14, 2011 at 10:12 am

Thanks to Patrick’s tweet, I just discovered your blog Annie ! I really like, you can count on a new regular reader 😉 And I’m really enthusiastic about a book full of the Gallon family’s stories, either from you or from Tamé. Convince your mum ! 🙂


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