How did children play in my time, in the time of my parents? They played outside with other children, climbed trees, played hopscotch, marbles and jump rope on a dusty playground, invented situations like going to a party, borrowing their mother’s dresses and shoes and smearing on makeup or running a store or a kitchen using play cups, kitchen utensils flowers, leaves and mud which we smashed into suspicious looking brews that we tried to feed to adults. At home, they may have a few toys, dolls for girls, cars for boys, board games, a bicycle or a good set of marbles or a Lego.
I loved buying toys for my children, especially since there were none where we lived and they were part of the excitement of opening a suitcase full of treasures when returning from a trip from Europe, East Asia or the US. Over the years, I noticed that the excitement often stopped there; the toys were unpacked and marveled at, often ending up in a pile in their room, bits lost and scattered, often the prey to rats or puppies. Dolls, cars and logos kept them busy inside in the evenings, but real fun was outside, playing with their friends and pets the same way we played as children.
The same goes for my grandchildren. They have toys, all in piles in their room. They play outside with other children, running up and down the hills in Ritoma in little packs, taking over a stone pile and fighting with dung, or settling somewhere and setting up a house, store or kitchen, building a little fire, using stones and bits of toys they collect here for furnish the space or their imagination. Young dogs or a pet sheep will hand around for the company. A cardboard box becomes a house, the mud in the creek, leaves and flowers become food they eat or prepare. Norzin, with her innate sense of enterprise, collects pretty stones from the river and ‘sells’ them to visitors.
Inside, Baby D will pick from the toy pile, add objects gathered around the house and pack shopping bags that she will walk around with, then stash somewhere. If a piece of something goes missing, we know it is in Baby D’s stash. Norzin and her dress up sometimes very creatively and smear makeup on their faces, or dress up the kittens, or both. Toys are mere accessories to be added to all kinds of other objects collected in the house or pasture.
Some say that the way children played for hundreds of years is threatened by the world of television, phones, computer games and IPads and it is certain that these mark the new wave of entertainment for children. They may keep children indoors and ‘safer’ though their remoteness from the real world and nature bring on a different kind of danger, one still very much unkown. I am grateful that I can still see my grandchildren play the way I always knew how to play.
1971, the year of my first trip to Asia, was full of buzz about Nepal. It was the place to go, to discover. For this very reason, my father made up his mind that we wouldn’t go there and sought to be original. He choose to make a two day trip to Srinagar, easily reachable by flight from Delhi.
His Indian associates tried to warn him that the weather there in February was very different from Delhi and Rajasthan, and that the people there very tricky. My father didn’t like people trying to tell him what to do so they went ahead and made what arrangements they could, telling him approximately how much he would need to pay for accommodation.
From the plane, Srinagar looked bleak. On arrival a short man in an oversized coat and astrakhan hat greeted us. He was a little obsequious, which put my father on edge, especially when he started calling him his friend. The first piece of news was that we were coming off-season so the hotels were all closed, but we had the opportunity to sleep on a houseboat. When he stated the price, way over the Delhi estimate, there started a long discussion, something my father was very good at, which seriously deflated the guide’s expectations, while my mother and I watched helplessly.
I thought the houseboat was fun, there was another houseguest, an unflappable Englishman in this early forties, who could very well have been a kind of James Bond, my mother was convinced of it anyway. It was quite cold and we seriously lacked warm clothing, so the guide sent off a boy in a wooden boat who came back an hour later with a selection of local garb, woolen formless tops that reached to the knee. They probably had been picked here and there and were not new, but I was soon wrapped in a burgundy one with gold embroidered neckline. My mother declined, choosing to stay in her Dior Spring weight coat.
My father had read about the area and said he wanted to visit the gardens. The guide timidly said that we could, but it wasn’t the best time to see them. The main Palace was closed, so we saw a grey flowerless garden after another, driving on bare poplar lined roads in the rain. I got my fill of photographs, though my parents were disappointed. That night, we sat in the houseboat around a stove with ‘James Bond’ telling us stories of his travels. The boat was freezing, though the hosts did their best to keep the fire lit.
We left for Delhi the next afternoon, and when my father expressed his disappointment, the Indian associates restrained themselves to a knowing smile.
In 1959, my parents bought Le Mont, a small chateau in great need of repair from the Folleville family, who had owned it since the time it was built in the 17th century. We had a common boundary with the Loquets, several fields away, who owned and old fashioned farm, which they ran with their daughter.
When renovating the property, which took several years, my father had the barns nearest to the house knocked down and Monsieur Locquet, as the new farmer neighbor, offered to take the large cider casks. My father asked how much he was offering for them and he replied that he was offering to take them away for free. My father figured we had no need for them and let him haul them away. After a while, M. Locquet informed my father that he had noticed he had a large quantity of apples and requested to have them to make cider. My father said he could, but that they should split the cider. Locquet replied that if he made cider, it would be for himself, and the deal was off. My father took this as an introduction to the Norman way of life.
The Locquet were already old, or seemed old to me from my six years. We bought all kinds of farm produce from them, and we often dropped in, for a bottle of cider or a pot of fresh cream, or just to look at the farmyard animals. My sister Christine and I would cross the fields to their little Normand farmhouse which had no running water, and rooms accessible from individual outside doors. We only ever saw their kitchen, which was the main room of the house, dominated by a large stove that heated the space as well as a pot which always simmered with hot water. Madame Loquet, who limped and complained of rheumatism, would greet us, slip into her wooden clogs and hobble over to the farmyard where we would look at the animals. They raised chickens, guinea fowl, rabbits, goats and of course, cows. I found the cows scary, they always seemed to look at you, and once when I crossed the field alone, they all came towards me at once with determined expressions. I ran in terror until I reached the farm. Madame Locquet laughed away, saying that they probably thought I was bringing them a treat. The goats were the most fun, especially the kid goats, that would jump over you if you crouched down. The chickens were everywhere, white hens followed by a more colourful cock. One day, Madame Loquet pointed to a black and grey cock saying he would go to the pot on Tuesday. It was Friday, and I felt sorry for it, with its aggressive cocky manner, thinking he didnt know what he was in for. There were broods of guinea fowl, mothered by hens, who made a better job at raising them than their guinea hen mothers, the farmer explained. I found it fun to chase the chicks, who ran ahead of me with loud squeaks, until the hen came at me in full force and pecked at my calves. I was stunned, and my nanny Germaine, who was getting a pot of fresh cream, made me feel like a bully, explaining that the mother hen cared as much about her guinea chicks as her own.
A visit to the Locquet was always accompanied by a glass of cider, which they brewed themselves and was quite strong, and I often returned home tipsy.
The Locquet had several sons and a daughter. The sons had left for town, where they made a career. They came to visit on vacations with their children, who were younger than me, and the wives would walk across the fields to the Little House where I played all day to sit and talk with Germaine. They made it clear they would never think of making their lives in the country and praised the wonders of Pont Audemer. The Loquet daughter, the only one left at home was too old to be married, and in 1964, she committed suicide by jumping in the well where her father found her. I had never seen a man cry and the sight of M. Locquet, with his little Hitler mustache, in tears as he related the story to Germaine, while his wife silently wiped her tears with her handkerchief stayed etched in my memory. Normandy had the highest rate of suicide in France; men hung themselves and women jumped in wells. This was attributed to the characteristics of Calvados, said to have a depressive effect.
In the mid 70’s as I spent time in the kitchen gossiping with our Russian, locally married cook Vali, she told me stories about our neighbors the Locquet. She said Madame Locquet was a tyrant, and though she couldn’t move around much due to gout, she managed to keep control of the money, denying M. Locquet any freedom. I had already heard the gossip that she had always been like that, and that she had been quite attractive in her youth with a very fulfilled love life, Madame Bovary style minus the debts and the suicide. Vali told me that Monsieur Locquet’s biggest wish was to own a transistor radio, to listen to his favorite programs while tending his vegetable plot. I had recently bought two ducklings, a spontaneous gesture, a reaction to seeing them being pecked at in their market stall and when she saw me coming home, not really knowing where to put them, she suggested that I give M. Locquet an old radio and ask him to look after them, that he would be so pleased he would forsake eating them.
I showed Vali an old radio I had upstairs, and she suggested I give it to him myself, without Madame Locquet knowing or she would take it from him. I brought him the radio and the ducklings. He was delighted and promised he would look after them with his life. When I came a month later to visit him and the ducklings, with a Madame Locquet who didn’t suspect about the radio, they looked happy enough in their movable cage. A few months later, my mother took a picture of them, dawdling around in his yard. One looked a little like a turkey. Unfortunately the turkey looking one came too close to the edge of the woods and was eaten by a fox.
The little wood below our house teems with life. First we had coyotes, then leopards, who turned out to be civets, colorful pheasants, throngs of winged creatures, including bats who came to inhabit Sochoe’s terrace, and most of all, monkeys, both macaques and langurs. The coyotes are long gone, the leopards have moved higher, and the civets seem to have moved on too, a good thing because they both ate our dogs. Now, more than ever, the monkeys are the kings.
Macaques typically move in bands composed of a few males and many females with babies. They jump from the trees below the house onto the terrace, where we had to give up leaving flower pots. Our neighbors chase them with BB guns, slings and what not, but we just let them be and we share the terrace. At night we can hear them grunting and whispering from our roof or in the nearby trees.
I never tire of watching monkeys. The other day, a whole band of ‘women and children’ came on the terrace. They saw me watching them behind the glass, and leaving their little ones a few paces behind, took on a defensive pose. Then, they ascertained the glass was between us, and became quite relaxed, grooming each other one tending to a leg sore a foot from where I stood, glass between us.