The street where I live in Normandy, France, is called the Rue Albert Tatlock. This is not its real name because I want to gossip about the neighbours. My wife and I have lived here for fifteen years. The Tatlock is a street of only 13 houses, mainly bungalows. These date from the early 1960s. These were commissioned by a syndicate of railway workers. They’re the Gallic equivalent of railway cottages. The SNCF employees have now moved on. Most of the current inhabitants are relative newcomers.
So, let’s talk about the neighbours. Angélique is one of the few who’ve lived in the street longer than we have. She’s a widow in her mid-eighties. She’s intelligent, amusing and she’s been here so long she’s a wonderful source of gossip. One of her special skills is her ability to get people to talk to her. The bungalow next to her is now occupied by a young couple with two kids. Angélique got chatting to the mother of the young woman before the couple moved in. The mother is not a fan of her son-in-law so, she described him to Angélique as a ‘tête de con’. In its politest form this means; idiot. As we still don’t know the real family name of the young couple we call them Mr and Mrs Tête. Angélique is very hospitable. If she has a fault it is her tendency to offer me a glass of whisky at 10 o’clock in the morning. I don’t always see this as a fault.
Opposite la famille Tête lives what is known as a famille recompose, it’s a guy who got divorced and married a younger woman. They moved in about ten years ago after the previous couple that lived there got divorced. (According to Angélique that particular divorce was, essentially, partner swapping.) We call him Mr. Fishman because in spring and summer he goes out fishing then comes home, cleans and guts the fish and gives them to the neighbours. Happily I’m on his list. Despite the fact that I thank him warmly for the gift and repeatedly tell him my name, he doesn’t seem inclined to tell me his. I suspect this is part of the natural reserve that Normans seem to have. I have noticed amongst the French people I have met a certain lack of curiosity about people and cultures that are not French. It’s almost as if – you’re not French, then it’s your hard luck.
Next is a family of East European expatriates who live next door to me, Mikheil, his wife Nana and their son Pierre, who was born in France. Mikheil looks a bit like Tony Soprano. He and his frequent visitors like to do a lot of DIY involving a duet of power tools. They sound like they use robust Siberian power tools designed to operate throughout the deep winter on the northern boundaries of the Eurasian Steppe.
Mikheil also likes to make phone calls in the garden. He bellows into his phone with a Slavic intensity and has his correspondent on speaker so both sides of the conversation are audible. I suspect that his family send him outside so they can watch the television in peace. The good news is that Mikheil is getting older and the power-tool duets are getting less frequent and the phone calls in the garden are now much quieter. This last development may be due to me.
In Britain you never complain to the neighbours. It’s just too dangerous. If someone starts up a ramjet in his garage you wait five years and respectfully suggest that it would be really nice if said ramjet could be turned down just a little bit and then you effusively thank the ramjetter for allowing you to share your thoughts with him. I didn’t do that with Mikheil.
It was mid-August and my wife and I were having a barbeque in the garden when one of the phone calls started up. This particular call went on and on and it got louder and louder. We moved to the other side of the house, as far away as possible from Mikheil. The call went on and seemed to get even louder. I then let out an almighty bark in English saying, basically, SHUT UP!!!!!!!!! The call stopped instantly and I felt deeply ashamed. I also felt a little frightened. He’s Tony Soprano after all. I have to say in mitigation that I had been drinking. I went round the next day and apologised, Mikheil pretended he hadn’t heard anything and Nana, God bless her, said “c’est pas grave” (no problem).
The next place on the league table is occupied by a man who doesn’t actually live in the street. He just passes through it several times a day. He’s called Bruno and he could be anywhere between fifty and sixty. He is either unemployed or he works for someone who is remarkably relaxed about clocking on, also he often appears to be slightly drunk. Not, aggressively drunk, just amiably drunk. He’s rather prone to whistling and singing as he passes the houses. He gets a particularly bad note from my dog for this reason. He also knows everybody and calls out to people as they drive by. Often the drivers stop in the middle of the road and chat to Bruno. I can only hear one side of the conversation because Bruno has a voice like a supertanker’s foghorn. He says hello to me when I’m out walking the dog. Sometimes he comments on the weather or asks if my dog is bilingual.
Living on the other side of Angélique a lady who was born when the First World War was fresh in people’s memories. She’s almost 100 years old so she doesn’t interact a great deal with the neighbours. She seems to spend much of her day staring out her front window. As I haven’t said more than five words to this lady in fifteen years, I only have Angélique’s rather unflattering portrait to go on. The portrait is that of a fussy and demanding old biddy who behaves as if she’s a minor royal who’s been forced to live out her declining years in a railway cottage.
Neighbours are people you live close to for years on end but because you see only fragments of their lives you never know who they really are. Now, where can I find a website where I can read what my neighbours think about me?
Philip Cahill is a retired accounting academic living in Caen, Normandy. In 2020 he published his first novel ‘Noystria’, an account of life in 26th century Normandy.