Nearly a year on from my very own Brexit, I have decided to honour my family line of women storytellers.
So today, I am telling you a story, my great-grandmother, Louise Tempre told me.
This is my great-grandmother.
I remember the feeling of her paper thin skin on my hand, how she smelt of clean Marseille Soap, how she always wore a knitted black shawl. She spoke Occitan and French. She died aged 97 when I was 6 years old. All the stories were told. Never read, although there were many books about the place, my grand-dad being self taught. Madeleine could barely read, besides by the time I came along, she was already half blind. So she sat, me at her feet on a little stool, telling me stories.
Her best story was the one about her mother, Madeleine Biancotto.
Madeleine was from the Val D'Aoste in Italy and worked very very hard on her brother's farm. She was very unhappy (he used to beat her up a lot) and one fine morning, after her 16th birthday, she packed a small bag, put her shawl over her head and walked from her brother's farm all the way to Marseille! A distance of, wait for it...470 kilometres!
To be fair, she only actually walked to Genoa (the mysterious port that featured in many tales) and then managed to smuggle herself into a Tartane bound for Marseille. Why Marseille? Well in those days, for poor Italian migrants it was Marseille or America. The Tartane was bound for Marseille so there she went.
She landed two months later with no money, no connections and no French!
Yet she managed. Because, that is what we do, the women of my family.
That's a Tartane, by the way. So romantic! I can see my great-great-grandmother sitting on deck, clutching her small carpet bag. She was tiny. All the women on my mother's side were tiny, not a trait I inherited.
They really needed all these romances, these marvellous tales, the women of my line. Their reality was tough. They worked as piece meal seamstresses from a single room at the top of a narrow house. They were dirt poor. I remember the tiny kitchen with the stove and its hot water tap, the one room with the alcove where my grandparents slept. Across the corridor, there was another room, with just one bed in which Louise, Annie (my mother) and my Aunt Marie slept. Why my Aunt Marie still lived there, I have no idea. She was a post lady (quite a good job at the time) but had a weak heart (that explained everything).
O yes, they knew how to make life an exciting adventure of courage, joy, trial and tribulation, triumph and victory. The little girl, I once was listened intently, eyes wide open, mesmerised. We may be poor but look, how amazing we are! The Contaraitz of my family!
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