It all started one year ago, when I decided I wanted to purchase a small house in my native village in Western France. With the size of my wallet, I was not after anything big.
I found a little house by the church side. It looked cute and old-fashioned, just as I wanted it. I needed nothing else, so off I went to start negotiating. But – of course there was a but – a right-of-way provided by the neighbour was necessary to access the tiny property. My idea was that maybe I could negotiate the purchase of a tiny plot to manage a property without any right-of-way. And this is where the story starts.
No later than last weekend, I walked from my parents’ and childhood’s home to my future neighbour’s home. The reason I am telling you this story is that by meeting her, I discovered a wonderful sociological example of a fairly old-fashioned lady from rural France alongside of a different way of considering and viewing what property means. I will tell you of my encounter as it appeared to me.
She lived in a small 1990s cottage by the side of the road a few hundred meters away from the church. I knocked at the door and her faint voice invited me in. We had met only once before and I did not expect her to recognise me. Once I had given my name and said I was the town pharmacist’s son, she recognised me.
She was standing next to the kitchen sink preparing cabbage for dinner’s soup. She was pulling out of a large basket the green vegetables that she has just handpicked from her garden. She was wearing these white and blue gowns that rural housewives were wearing many years ago. She was very small and her arthritis and the years had bent her back so much that it made her look even smaller. She was very recognisable in my village for being the lady who walked rapidly with her back almost horizontal. She would only stand straight every once in a while either to address people or to read signs here and there.
Her hands were still muddy from the garden picking she had just completed. She concluded the preparation of the soup and invited me to sit down across the table covered in a thick yellowish plastic cover that people use to protect the table. She had great hair small eyes and no glasses. She smiled at me. Her house was probably no more than a three-room house. Paperless plaster covered the wall, an old 1980s brown and worn couch was sitting behind her. A wood stove sat not far next to the sink. The stove had some times ago darkened the walls because of the smoke. The only modern element of the room was her flat screen TV. Next to it sat several framed pictures, one of which was herself with her only daughter some thirty years ago. Not a single display of any kind of wealth was there. Someone from elsewhere would probably have thought that this was a house of poverty.
I did not want to start the discussion directly on the topic of the next door land, so we spoke of many things, mainly the past. With a passionate smile, she told me of the times when she walked down to the river to the mill and the time when her brothers were leading the cattle to the fields that they had around the small town. Despite her age of almost 80, she had a crystal clear and brilliant story-telling voice that I loved to listen to. As it is unfortunately the case of most women her age, she told me of the many people surrounding her that had died. My mother had told me of the death of her husband, which took place right behind, in the garden. Her brother had been institutionalised a few years back when his dementia had become too much of a burden for her to bear. About him, she told me later, “he wasn’t able to reason reasonably any more”, as she was telling me that he wanted to add more and more bread to the soup. Adding bread to the soup was a normal thing to do to make dinner more consistent, but not to that extent obviously. She told me of the neighbours who had children “because that’s what people do” and their doctor, who was a doctor despite being a woman. No doubt she was old fashioned but she was a great company.
Then came the topic, object of my visit. She let me talk and then as the sun was shining a bit, despite the dreadfully rainy week-end we were undergoing, she invited me to the courtyard I was aiming to buy. She tour-guided me around, telling me of where soldiers were hiding during the 1870s war and how the soldiers loyal to the French State burnt part of the buildings after some scuffle. “That’s what they did, when they were losing, burn the places to the ground’. The whole place was covered in countless old stuff, including pots, old farming tools, even an old horse carriage. Things that – who knows? – might serve at one point. She went on to show me the old bread oven dating back a few centuries buried behind a mountain of old ropes and bags of all sorts. She ended the tour a bit further in a beautiful violet flower yard that the sun made look incredible.
That’s (only) when she eventually made clear she had no intention of selling me any plot, the reasons being a mix of ‘I don’t know what my daughter wants to do’ and ‘I use these bits to store some wood for my wood-stove’. I wasn’t there to force her into anything, so I accepted her discourse. That’s when she had an idea.
She lowered her voice in fear of ears dropping neighbours and said that she had something else I might be interested in. Another plot she had some kind of trouble with. With me at her heals, she walked back to her home where she starting searching a pile of old notebooks and apparently unordered papers. She pulled out an old blue school spiral notebook and turned the pages to the last ones. On those two pages were nicely handwritten in blue ink words and numbers I could not read or make sense of at first. I realised progressively that each line corresponded to one plot of land she owned. Not three or four plots, but probably 60 or 70. Four hundred acres here, 390 acres there. At the current land prices, the old lady that I thought poor and living with barely anything was undoubtedly a millionaire landlady.
She scoured through the lines to find the ‘Kiouq’. The Kiouq was the plot she wanted to sell to me in the stead of the plot I asked for. The reason why she was making this offer was because the mayor had sent her a letter requesting the cleaning of the plot, cleaning that she had no intention of doing. She had no use of any of the plots that were sitting of the scribbled notebook, so the annoyance by the mayor was the only reason she wanted to get rid of the Kiouq.
My mother had told me earlier that she was certain she would never sell me her plot, ‘because you can’t really talk with farming landowners’. What I realised is that she functioned on a totally different rationality. She didn’t own land for its value or its use. She owned it because it had always been that way and that her role was to preserve, though her discourse was so clear about that. That’s when something she had said earlier in the garden made sense to me.
She had earlier showed me the recently refurbished water well and the just redone roof top of a small building next to it. While this was of obvious no use, I had asked her why she had these annexes rebuilt. Her answer was that “it was going to fall on us”. While most people would not have refurbished old buildings of no value and no use, she had spent money of her pocket to take care of those abandoned parts. Because they are here and since they were of use in the past, we needed to take care of them.
From my parents’ view she was totally irrational. After spending three hours with her, I understood a whole new rationality that did indeed make sense, which was clearly reasonable reasoning; just a different form of reasoning from the one that more modern people have.
This was confirmed when I asked her why she was not purchasing the plot I was about to buy. Indeed, it would be a smart move – in my modern eyes – because it would then make one complete plot that would probably sell better and at a better price someday. To which suggestion she answered: ‘for what use?’
In the 20 years I grew up in my village, I never had realised this. It took this experience to enter the logic of rural landowners. It taught me that appearances lie, when I thought she was poor. It taught me that use and value are clearly not the only prism you can see the world with.
She belonged to her land as much as the land belonged to her.