French Village Neighbours

I had been to the sleepy but lovely, off-road wine village of Pouzolles in the Languedoc in the South of France perhaps a dozen times on holiday, usually with my partner Beth accompanying me from Tokyo where we lived and worked. The contrast between the raucous thrill and 12-hour workdays of metropolis Tokyo was always keenly felt and enjoyed. The recuperative powers of small village life were a salve to the soul after crazy Tokyo life. It was truly a foreign home away from foreign home – we knew people, they welcomed us back, asked us how long we were staying, invited us for drinks and made us feel welcome. 

In our short visits only good things happened, in keeping with life in a fine little vineyard village. There was the centenary celebration of the school in 2006; every summer rocked to the festivities of music and dancing; a new wine emporium opened at the private winery of L’Arjolle; there were wedding parties at the village hall and Friday night open-air dining on mussels, pizza and camembert washed down with the local rosé as we sat at long tables under the plane trees in July and August. The brevity of our visits meant we our experiences were joyful, seldom anything untoward.


Wedding party in village street                          

Open-air eating at a “brasucade”


Centennial celebration of the village school in 2006                         

The inhabitants of Pouzolles were friendly, always with a cheery “Bonjour”, and often happy to stop for a chat. Mme Couderc was one of several old and talkative widows in our street. I would walk with her to her house enjoying conversing for 200 metres. She often stopped to gather her thoughts, telling me she had a brother 21 years younger than her, born in 1941. He worked all the time still because, “Il aime l’argent”, she said, “He likes money”. He was a vintner like so many others in the village. She would return to the usual village gossip: the weather, the neighbours, the foreigners, about how English neighbours near her had made many changes to their three-storey place with a new kitchen and a walled garden. Then she’d complain about the foreigners in the village who only manage, “Bonjour! … Rien plus que ça!” …  “No more than that!”. And she would tell me, “I’m now 87.”  

    Mme Couderc and friend walking along Bvd Jules Ferry, Pouzolles

Monsieur Donnet, long-time builder in Pouzolles

In the same street a little further on was Monsieur Donnet who had been a builder in the village for 50 years, giving up first year at medical school in Montpellier because he was homesick. He showed me different kinds of house fronts and paint colours, so that I could make a good choice for the necessary refreshing of our façade. He had a small vineyard as part of his one-acre garden at the end of our street. 

 Even 20 years ago, there were some incomers to the village from other lands: Pat and Gordon retired early from England; Ian from Ireland, a cartoonist for a British newspaper; Annie, an English artist setting up her own “atelier” in the “cave” of her house, and Barry, a professional photographer from New Zealand, who had travelled the world. 

No small village is complete without an eccentric – Arlette Ribé was an elderly gypsy-like character who lived on the edge of the village in a small house with views of vast rolling hectares of vines. She had been born 85 years before in the countryside, leaving school at the age of twelve to help her father tend the goats. She would give me eggs, little dates marked on them with a red pen. 

Arlette also told me that the director of the village school, “L’école primaire” had been demoted, “Il a perdu son travail” because of some indiscretion, but I later found out that it was illness and he had to take early retirement. I knew him, had seen him drinking at the café, surrounded by other worthies who enjoyed an afterwork, pre-prandial glass or two. He was a character, full of talk and gestures. He played pétanque a lot and I’d often see him pitching a steel ball under the plane trees sheltering the earthy park. I loved meeting and talking with all these different people on my annual visits. 

It was difficult to think that the good folks of the small village of Pouzolles would experience anything problematic or unhappy in such a pleasant atmosphere. After I stopped teaching I would go almost every year to this paradise, usually on my own for longer periods. 

One quiet lunchtime when the morning noise of tractors and grape-picking machines subsided for a couple of hours, I heard that a horrendous thing had happened. I was surprised how calmly I took it, possibly dulled by the early autumn warmth. I would have expected to be more troubled, surely not for my lack of thinking about it, not for lack of proximity of relationship with the person, just the distance from his abode. I know people in the face of terrible events who would wring their hands, need to talk and share, feel to say things like, “In our village … how did this happen? … was there any warning? … where did he get the gun? … oh, it’s frightful!”  All that in French of course: “C’est affreux! Je ne peux pas croire, dans notre village, et pas d’avertissement, quel atroce!” 

I was acquainted with the deceased, his death so nearby, only a stone’s throw from our place. I learned about his demise two days after the event when I visited Arlette Ribé on Friday afternoon, September 12th, 2007.  She said he had shot himself on Wednesday outside his house. I remembered that I was at home at the time, and thinking his house was only about 100 metres away. I caught myself trying to recall if I had heard a shot. I almost convinced myself that I had. On second thoughts in a less absorbed state, I realised his body would have muffled the sound of any shot. 

A couple of days later on the Sunday, I talked to my next-door neighbour, Mme Izard. She said the “voisin” had shot himself at his front gate on the Wednesday at 2:00 p.m. He was depressed and drank too much. He used to be the administrative manager of the primary school but had to retire – he got lots of money as compensation for stepping down. She said he left a wife and a son and daughter. I couldn’t help detecting a measure of blame in her tone. Villagers here all the time will know and feel much more than me just dropping in for a holiday and heading off again.

He was a frequent visitor to the café, a pétanque player, an imbiber and bon vivant. He had a pleasant, almost endearing manner. He would always give me a big cheery wave from his vehicle or from the café, where he would quaff carafes of wine with his friends or his wife. The last time I saw him was a few evenings before, playing pétanque under the plane trees in the park. About a week before that, I passed him near the “Arrêt” sign at the end of the street at the school. I was on my bike, he was in his people-mover wagon. I got a big wave accompanied by his broad crazy smile framed by his scruffy beard, eyes ablaze, no doubt the effects of copious quantities of wine or pastis. They have a different attitude to drinking and driving in this neck of the vines. 

I tried to honour his passing but it was difficult because I never really

knew him except for the waving and the “bonjours”. I went to the café to have a remembrance drink for him but decided there were too many people, over 20 customers having dinner, too noisy. I had a quiet glass of rosé at home instead. I also decided to go to my “terrain”, a piece of land that used to have vines, to see if Americans Ken and Alison were having a barbecue there. Escapees from the George W. Bush era, they had bought a big house in the village. It was something they did in summer on my land because they had no outside terrasse or garden at their place. They weren’t there but there was a wonderful new moon. I stayed a few minutes thinking about why people end their lives, what had been so awful in life for my neighbour and how his family would be managing. What leads someone to shoot himself in daylight at his front gate, or anywhere for that matter? How can someone give up on his family, relinquish the possibility of enjoying life fully again? Wasn’t there someone to turn to in a close-knit village? Neighbours and friends should ensure there is always help and hope, the possibility of recovery, no matter how depressed a person may be. The 51-year-old shool teacher who always waved cheerily to me on my bike is no more. He must have had a terrible crisis of mind or soul.

I wished I knew a little more about his life and condition. Was he always troubled? How had he come to Pouzolles? Where was he from originally? What was life like for his wife now? What was she feeling? What of the two children, not yet teenagers? I learned on another visit to Pouzolles that the neighbour had had terminal cancer of the intestine. He couldn’t bear to live with the slow death anymore.

Now over ten years on, there hasn’t been a visit to the village when I haven’t passed his house just round the corner and remembered his friendly smile and wave. I make a mental note to find out his name, to be able to personalise his passing. I wonder if anyone else in the village ever thinks of him.



House and garden where the neighbour shot himself, September, 2007

On my most recent visit to Pouzolles in June, 2019, I made a point of visiting my close neighbour Mme Izard to ask about her neighbour. She    

surprised me by saying he had killed himself right opposite her house in the tiny garden under a “châtaigner”, a chestnut tree. His son had come home and found him. I had thought all those years his house was further down the street, not that distance should make any difference but I somehow wished I hadn’t been thinking of the wrong location for so long. She told me his family name and how ill he had been with cancer and how his wife had drunk herself to death after he died. The children, however, had made careers in the military. The son was recently decorated for bravery. She said news of it was in this month’s Pouzolles bulletin which I could get at the “mairie”, the village council office. 

The piece was entitled “A Pouzolles Person Honoured”:

Chief sergeant William Lebourg received the gold medal for national defence for his actions in 2018 during a landing operation in Mali in Africa. He helped to rescue and evacuate someone caught in a bomb attack. He also helped to intercept and immobilise the terrorists at the time. 

The Pouzolles council congratulates this brave soldier who spent some of his childhood in the village.


So his father’s name was Monsieur Lebourg. When I asked Mme Izard if she knew his first name, she couldn’t recall it. I would like to think that it was possibly Serge as in Gainsbourg, one of my favourite French 


singers, or Marcel to give him the famous mime artist Marceau’s name, an amicable moniker in keeping with his ebullience and warm smiles, a demonstration of friendliness I will remember with great fondness. “Bien sûr il serait été fier de son fils” – for sure he would have been proud of his son.  

I have searched in the village cemetery but can’t find a memorial to him. All I can say is, “Reposez en paix”, Rest in Peace wherever you are, my old French neighbour – I only ever knew you at a distance but your smiling wave was like from an old friend, and it is with me still.