A true story from a small French village.
Just the other day I was going through some of the many older documents and papers that I seem to collect like millionaires collect bank notes,and I stumbled across some photos, so faded and colourless that I couldn’t even scan them, and a couple of bits of paper, which recalled these events to my mind.
The story is an example of yesterday, today and probably tomorrow.
Make what you will of it, here it is.
It was spring, roughly 1985, and the weather was,as usual, splendid.
We had descended from Bavaria, where we lived, for our customary 2 weeks in the South of France (at the time our occupations allowed us to work solidly many hours over a 2 week period, and have the other 2 weeks a month in our little niche in France).
The extreme differences in everything, from life style and weather to language and friends, was always interesting, and we profited enormously from these periods.
As usual, we had installed ourselves at one of our favourite “Bar-Restaurants” in the area,a place called Meze, on the shores of the “Bassin de Thau” known mainly for its mussel and oyster banks,and (at the time) lack of tourists!
Taking our customary “apero” at the bar, before passing to table, we were pleased to renew friendships with the local people,who had become accustomed to the fact that we were always absent for 2 weeks,and the first evenings were a succession of “catching-up” with the local news and gossip,many aperitifs, and some good food afterwards.
My wife, Kate,knew all the people, as I did, and therefore I was surprised when she pulled my sleeve, and whispered in my ear that the little fellow next to her was becoming rather intrusive, and would only speak German with her.
This in itself was rare, French being the normal language, so I was forced to take a look at the fellow.
Wolfgang was a small, mousey looking individual, who did not inspire too much confidence, being rather more of a tramp than an elegant oyster fisherman!
I asked him what his problem was, in German, and he was effusively apologetic, but being Austro-German himself, although living in Meze for some time, he had thought we were German, and only wanted to have a chat in German.
This is his story.
Way back in the early 40’s he had been born in Frankfurt on Main, mother Austrian, father German. At an early time his father had left, to be seen no more, and shortly after his mother had died.Wolfgang was installed in an institution for orphans in Frankfurt, where he stayed some years, before “breaking out” and disappearing.
He had passed most of his life, from then on, “on the road”, working casually, and since he had no identity papers, he was obliged, in his own country, to avoid all authorities, as much as possible, which meant simply black labour, and all the disadvantages this brought.
Not being able to afford accommodation, he lived either in a tent on the current building site, or was given a bunk in the site barracks, where he (small as he was) fulfilled a certain function as “night guardian” and in the daytime, casual labourer. Payment was made, obviously, for only one of these 2 occupations! He didn’t complain, and counted himself lucky to have found somewhere to sleep, and something as employment.
This at a time when W.Germany was in extreme boom, and fortunes were being made, day in, day out.
Being a young man, he decided to break out and see the wide world, and taking what he had been able to save, he bought himself a moped, one of those Lambretta jobs, so popular at the period. No licence, no insurance, no nothing, he set off on his travels.
More by good fortune than by calculated risk, he managed to pass the border into France, since he had set his aim on Spain, warmth and free oranges called, without being stopped, and carried on down the Rhone Valley, heading towards the Spanish goal.
He stopped sometimes for a couple of days, just to work somewhere, casually, for a few francs to get food and petrol, sometimes for a few months if the employer was friendly, and so gathered his spattering of the French language, but time was passing, and Spain still seemed a long way away.
One day, he arrived in a small town, South of Lyon, where an event took place which was to change drastically, his life.
He showed me the newspaper clippings, with photos, so I can vouch for the validity of this story.
In this small town, he was able to find some work, and could put his tent up on the local gypsie camp,which wasn’t far from his work location, on the side of the river Rhone, normally a charming location to pass your holidays.
Only, this was a Gypsy camp,free of charge, showers arranged, with toilets, on the banks of the river, and was not at all a tourist attraction. Still it sufficed for Wolfgang.
The periods changed, and the summer warmth gave way to Autumn dampness, and the rain started.
Some of you may know the banks of the Rhone when it rains and rains, and you wouldn’t want to install yourselves in a tent there!
Neither did the gypsies, and family after family, they left in their caravans, leaving, as usual, their debris behind them.
A part of this debris was a small ancient wooden wheeled gypsy style van,the sort of thing you would go into to have your fortune told, only even smaller.
On leaving, one of the gypsies told Wolfgang that if he was going to stay, he could use this doubtful accommodation, instead of his tent, they were leaving it there anyway.
Wolfgang set to work, and repaired and adapted the trailer, installed himself, and eventually was offered (by his boss) the possibility of putting it onto the building site to pass the winter. Since it had a stove in it, this was perfect for Wolfgang, the only problem being how to get the thing to the campsite!
Independent and creative Wolfgang solved the problem by simply fabricating a sort of harness which fitted to his Lambretta, and off they went.
Amazingly, it worked. As he told me, now and then he had to get off the lambretta, to get uphill, but it worked.
The event which changed his life occurred when he returned to the riverside camp site to collect his bits and pieces he had left, covered by his tent from the non-stop rainfall.
The river had broken its banks, as the Rhone had (and still has) a tendancy to do regularly,and as Wolfgang was leaving, he heard some shouts and screaming, and looking over towards the source, he saw a young cild running down the tow bank, pointing towards the river.
Wolfgang followed the pointed finger, and saw a little black head bobbing up and down in the water.
It was the sister of the young child who was shouting, and Wolfgang, possibly from his highly developed sense of survival, and from his lack of normal human indifference did not hesitate, but ran through the flooded banks and plunged.
The river has an enormous current, was flooded and gorged with water, it was late Autumn, the water was cold, and frankly, a drama costing both lives was more to be reckoned with than the saving of anyone.
Wolfgang managed to arrive at the childs side, and held her up above the water level, a feat which many stronger men would not have been capable of.
He realized there was no chance of going against the fierce current, so he used his cunning, gained over many years, to follow the current, concentrating on keeping both heads above water, and waiting for the chance to use anything floating by to hold onto. In the end, the current washed them close enough to a tree, partly covered by the water, and he was able to hold on tightly to a branch, help the child onto an upper branch, and then clamber up himself.
The brother had followed all this, and had shouted for help, and help duly arrived, in the form of that which Wolfgang dreaded, police, fire engines, ambulances and all the rest.
Wolfgang became a local hero! Local and Regional papers came and took his photo, then disappeared as quickly as they had come.
Wolfgang was held, firstly in Hospital, then in a local police cell, because he had no papers!!
Only the intervention of the Mayor made it possible that Wolfgang could be released, arranging a “temporary identification card” for him, and Wolfgang was allowed out – back to his gypsy van and the building site!
This same “temporary identification card” was still the only identification, plus the newspaper cuttings, he had some 30 years later, when we met him!!
Eventually, the wandering spirit came back, and Wolfgang planned everything in detail. Building boom in Spain attracted him, and now he had a “caravan”!
He hitched up, and off he went.
The route he had planned was via the smallest and least observed minor roads possible, (and well away from rivers!) he simply did not have confidence in the authorities, his equipment, and in any case, he wasn’t pushed!
Casual jobs, but now not exceeding a week or so, supplied money for petrol,nourishment and a period of rest. If you can call carting huge and heavy wooden beams on your shoulder restful. Of course employers used him to the maximum, not concerned if he stayed or went, they knew he would move on shortly in any case, so carting these beams(which wouldn’t smash or break, like tiles or glass or even bricks) seemed to be ideal.
Wolfgang showed me his shoulders, even many years after having stopped doing such work, and they were quite something to see.
Slowly, but surely, he approached the coast in the south, where he intended to follow the coastline roads, to the Spanish border.
Around the town of Sete (about 20 kilometers from Meze) he hit the Med coast, wagon,lambretta, sore shoulders and all!
On arriving, he offered himself a couple of weeks holiday. It was around Easter time, and tourists had started arriving, so he was able to find little, light jobs for them, which probably were more or less begging, and he was able to relax, once again installed on the local gypsy site, not far from the beaches, but well concealed from the tourists. To explain, these gypsy or “traveller’s” camp sites are the law in France, any town over a certain population is obliged to provide them, and most of them are atrocious things, but free.
Here, around 150 kilometers from the Spanish border, the second life-changing event happened to Wolfgang.
He was robbed!
Returning from the beach one day, he saw his “caravan” from afar, overturned on its side, smashed. What was worse, if possible, was that there was no sight of his lambretta anywhere!
Of course, the other “traveller’s” had seen and heard nothing! Wolfgang’s few possessions were strewn about the site, and his “papers” were found later, stuck in a bush of wild brambles.
It couldn’t really have been worse, a complaint to the authorities was, of course, out of the question,so all Wolfgang could do was to set the caravan upright, and start to try repairs.
A few tourists heard of his plight, and popped by with a few things, some food, some wine, some beer, some cigarettes (Wolfgang didn’t smoke) some discarded clothing, but they didn’t stay long, and certainly didn’t help with the repairs!
Somebody local had informed the police, but Wolfgang was always able to see them coming in advance, and kept a sack full of his “important” stuff, which he snatched and ran – up into the high grass dunes nearby, whenever he saw them arriving.
The police never got a hold of him, and I doubt if they ever really tried very hard. They just waited for Wolfgang to move on.
This was what Wolfgang wanted to do, but easier said than done. He had his daily work to do, and was also busily involved in stripping what he could on his van, in an effort to make it lighter, there was the problem of his light motor scooter, as “horse” to pull the thing etc.
His current employer lived at a place called Meze, some 25 kilometers by road from where he currently was, and although the fellow had heard of Wolfgang’s problems, and had even proposed a piece of waste ground,along the old disused railway line between Meze and Villeveyrac, the basic problem remained – how to get it there!
Finally, since no one proposed anything else, Wolfgang actually started to PULL the thing himself!
This is no joke, this was for real!
On the road leading along the side of the “Bassin de Thau” passing through such areas, now almost all tourist settlements, like Balaruc-les-Bains,Frontignan (passed by the then small oil/petrol refineries), Wolfgang became an attraction, a daily one, because he tried to pull his van out of the heavy traffic hours, but was spotted by the people going to work early, and they watched his daily progress with interest, hooting when they passed, and giving him a “thumbs-up” sign from time to time.
Wolfgang tried to do as much as possible each day, before going to his building site, the main problem being that he had to find, every day, somewhere to leave the van where it would be as safe as possible, and where he could sleep in it that evening/night.
He made steady progress, and after about 3 weeks, he had advanced some 10km.
It is to be presumed that at some stage the Police had seen his antics on the public road, but no contact was made by them.
At the junction of the minor road from Sete to Poussan, Wolfgang bumped into two problems. It was here where the minor road joined into the N112, leading past Bouzigues to Meze (the ultimate goal), and it was here,also, that the road went uphill!
For some 3-4km’s, the slight incline had to be mastered, and unfortunately there was no possibility of parking the van anywhere during this stretch. This stretch had to be done in one go,uphill, and on a busy National road,by hand!
It seemed useless, and would have been if things had stayed that way.
The saving wonder arrived in the form of a group of tourists, who were on a wander holiday, but not on foot – on horseback/pony back!
I think that seeing this miserable little man, trying to pull a gypsy caravan, like a horse, must have touched a chord somewhere, or maybe it was simply the idea of trying out pulling a cart, as in olden days, with their ponies/horses appealed to them.
In any case, they hitched up one of their mounts, and the 10 kilometers remaining to the final destination was done in less than 2 hours!
For Wolfgang a wonder,for the Tourists an amusing episode which they immortalized in many photos, some of which I personally saw,and of which Wolfgang was very proud.
He had made it, Meze, small village living from mussels and oysters, vineyards and nothing else!
His employer was impressed, and installed Wolfgang onto the piece of waste ground,as promised, and told him he could stay as long as he liked, even if he wasn’t working for him.He could help himself also to the cuttings of the vineyards on the side of the waste ground, for heating or cooking. A sort of “feel at home” thing, and Wolfgang’s gratitude was immense.
He functioned as a watchman (day and night),labourer, and in his spare time he tidied up the waste ground, and got the old well unblocked, and so had access to water of a higher quality than that which came out of the taps.
As time went on, he arranged a small “garden” well stocked with all the vegetables which grow in the region so easily, tomatoes,red and green peppers, aubergines, even a corner with potatoes!
That was how Wolfgang had passed the last 15 or so years, rarely going into the village, which was just a few hundred metres away. Bread and meat and other nourishment he scrounged from the local commerces, going into the village late in the evening, and picking up the sacks which they left next to the dustbins, just for him.
Occasionally he would go down to the oyster and mussel beds, and steal a few, but the ostriculturers (that’s what they are called), knew him, and didn’t say anything, he didn’t damage anything and anyway, the products he took were generally of low quality and not sellable. With his wage, he bought the other few things which made him happy, a little wine, a little beer, occasionally a small bottle of Pastis (the water came from the well) and his world was in order.
Most people in the village got used to seeing him around, sometimes on an old bicycle somebody had given him, sometimes just sitting trying to catch a fish or two.
Spain was forgotten, excepting a small decorative orange tree somebody had thrown away, and which Wolfgang took tremendous care of.It sometimes gave a couple of little round things which resembled green oranges, but never got the real colour. For Wolfgang, this was HIS “Espagne”.
As usual, catastrophy struck again, when his old employer died, and his family did not wish to keep the ground and the house with vineyards, putting them up for sale.They already had “villas” with “swimming pools” (I call them concrete blocks with a pond).
The whole lot was bought by a newly arrived, from Paris, couple, who ran a chemist shop in the village, and their first thoughts were to get rid of Wolfgang, or at least make him pay a rent!
Strangely, this did not go down well in the village, Parisiens not being too highly thought of anyway, and those who wanted to get rid of,“our German”,were most definitely not to be supported.
The story went on in this fashion for some years, during which time, I and my wife, Kate, would collect things in Germany, thrown away mainly by Germans who had too much, and we would take them down to Wolfgang. With time, we found a little RV which ran off batteries, and a Hifi radio/cassette player, and Wolfgang had contact with outside world.He couldn’t understand why he couldn’t get German TV, and wanted to listen to German radio, “just for a change”, and in the summer months, I was able to tune a German Tourist radio station for him, and he was blissful!
The problems with the new owners continued, and were made a bit worse by the fact that Wolfgang had possessed, for years, a couple of the most ferocious dogs I had ever seen, “Desert Dogs” he said they were, and I didn’t go close to investigate!
First one and then the other were poisoned, culprit unknown, and Wolfgang was desolate. He wouldn’t, maybe couldn’t, drink the water from the well, he had fears that it could have been tampered with!
His life became very explosive.
We had taken up the habit of sending a Christmas card to him, from Germany, every year, and he loved this, and watched out for the postman on his little motor bike around the period of Christmas. Imagine then our surprise when our Christmas Card was returned as “gone away”!
It wasn’t until the Easter period that we could drop round to see him, when we arrived in Meze.
In place of Wolfgang’s little garden and van, we found a sort of hangar, full of tools for road building. No sign of Wolfgang!
We went to see our local acquaintances and friends, who told us that Wolfgang had been found dead, in his van, just before Christmas. He was buried in the local cemetery, next to the graves of some arab regiment soldiers who had died during the war!
We went to see a local policeman, who was a “remote” friend, to try and find outwhat he had died of, and were told that nobody knew, he was just dead! I asked if any inquest had been held, and was told – no. It was only on leaving, when I spotted the battery radio/cassette player given by us to Wolfgang, in the corner of the policeman’s kitchen, that I realized the probable truth.
It seemed that the ground had been rented out to the Motorway building society, to stock some of their material, and it seemed also, that the policeman was reluctant to discuss the matter further.
The couple who ran the Chemist’s shop had bought the shop next door to them, and had enlarged the Chemists shop, and life was blooming!
We left the policeman’s home, and never saw him again.
We never bought anything again from the Chemist in question, preferring to travel 10km’s to the nearest one, and we told everyone,who would listen,this story!
We left Meze a short time after, and I only pass by from time to time, when I try to make the detour to say hello to Wolfgang, in the cemetery.
Sunshine – warmth – beaches – tourists – holiday’s – and Wolfgang!
No doubt there are thousands of other stories, all very similar, but I can’t help hoping that Wolfgang will be sitting on the right hand side, ready to judge, when the time comes.
weather at Vauvert, France
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