Thursday, February 10, 2011

Provence - The Dark Side. Part 1: Suicide in Provence

People who holiday in Provence are often - understandably - seduced by its obvious charms. Particularly in summer, visitors to the region will find that almost an overkill of sensual pleasure is easily available. The markets, the cafés and restaurants, the olive groves, the bees humming drowsily in the lavender.... Add a two or three month dollop of hot sun and a swimming pool and it's clear to see why Pagnol's Jean de Florette spoke of finding Zola's paradise.

I'm all for that view of Provence. That's why I live here. I regard Provence in the way you regard a lover in those first dazzled months, except that the feeling has lasted over 30 years.

It was before I lived here though that I began to see a bit of the dark side of this area. And like anywhere populated by human beings, there is a dark side.

My first glimpse came a couple of decades ago when I witnessed friends break up. The husband ran a business converting clapped out old farmhouses into luxurious second homes for Brits. He and his wife had the clichéd "all" - beautiful children, beautiful home, beautiful bank balance, beautiful life. But having it all didn't stop him running off with another man's wife and destroying his family. Not long after, his wife committed suicide. (Never try this with paracetamol, or doliprane, by the way. You don't drift off to a dreamless sleep with a paracetamol overdose. You languish in hospital for a week or more, as she did, wracked with pain while your liver collapses.)

Now, divorce and/or suicide happen. Anywhere. But my impression is that there's quite a bit of both knocking around these parts. In posts to follow, I'll talk about local divorces, about prostitution in Provence and about inter-racial tensions between the indigenous French, gipsies and North Africans (or maghrébins.) I'll give alcoholism a shot too. For now, I'll stick with suicide.

Some time ago I mentioned to a friend that, as I live on my own in the countryside, it might be an idea to keep a gun in the house. Guns are all over the place here - every guy in the village seems to have one, for hunting - and I frequently come across cheery men with guns wondering around in the forest around the house.

"Only thing is" I told my friend "I don't know where to get one."

He threw up his hands, said "Come with me", and led me to a great wooden cupboard. Throwing it open he carefully lifted out four shotguns wapped in blankets, just as you see in turn-of-the-century films about the mafia. One had belonged to his father, for hunting. One was his own. Can't remember the history of the third and he acquired the fourth when a girl friend called him in distress one day because her father had committed suicide. Some time after arriving at her home to help deal with police and pompiers, my friend was handed the shotgun. "Please get it out of the house" the bereaved daughter said. "He shot himself in the head with it."

Last summer, an old chap arrived in the little hamlet near my home and stood looking at the houses for a while. There's a canal just below the hamlet and he trundled down to it, looking sadly into the water. One of my neighbours wandered over to chat to him and heard that his father had worked at the old gypse quarry before it was abandoned long ago. He'd lived in the hamlet where my neighbours now live. The chap recounted a short history of disappointment and sadness in his father's life and added: "I've never been back here but I wanted to see the place. He drowned himself in this canal."

Last winter when we were collecting our olives round here, we got news that a couple most of us know had not only broken up but that the woman involved had promptly killed herself.

And some time before that I had my own little brush with suicide on the dirt track by my home.

This is what happened. I was going through a divorce (as you do in midlife....) My much-loved partner of 19 years had a spectacular midlife crisis, became cruel and violent and ran off to Scotland with another man's wife. For a time I had to live in the unpleasant chaos he generated. One day I drove down the track to town and noticed a smart white car parked off to one side in the forest. When I returned hours later I noticed it was still there. Since clandestine lovers sometimes park there I didn't think much of it. The next morning though, I went into town again and the car was still there. I instinctively knew what that meant. Someone had hanged, gassed or shot themselves. For a second I thought of stopping. But knowing what I'd find, I drove on. I had enough to deal with and simply thought "That's the job of the pompiers. Someone will find him or her today but it's not going to be me." I felt sure it was already too late to help. In fact, I didn't even think of reporting it.

Later I drove home and the car was still there. A couple of hours later a neighbour came dashing round and thumped at the door. When I answered, he took a deep breath and said "So it's not you." The pompiers had found the person hanging from a pine tree but when they were stopped (naturally) as they went down the track with the body in the ambulance, all they would tell the neighbours was that 'a person' had hanged themselves. The neighbours concluded my divorce might have done for me. In fact, it was a man in his sixties. We never found out what drove him to kill himself. But clearly he'd found that even the beauty and light of Provence were not enough to make life worth living.

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