by Fiona Sass

Memories are so important, they keep our whole lives stored. In talking to elderly village folk, I am beginning to collect these precious stories and hope to keep them alive by sharing them. The first article entitled, “Stories from Espadrille Country” is set between Coustouges and St Laurent de Cerdan, in the Haut Vallespir, and follows the lives of two women, Helen Payrot and Marceline Serre. Future monthly articles will feature our very own sweet shop lady who is a very central player in St Laurent and my mother-in-law who raised a generation of the village as café and restaurant owner with her husband for many years. We will meet numerous wise old folk along the way and be able to glean more about the rich, treasured heritage of our chosen home, the Pyrenees Orientales.

A few years ago, I began taking care of the elderly, in my “hometown”. Having left South Africa at 21 and travelled far and wide since then, “home” is now on a French mountain near the village of Coustouges in the Pyrenees.


In the living memory of the elderly are brothers and fathers going off  to war, and the stories of those who never returned.

The family grew forwards, but the old ones never forgot; a father, an uncle, a favourite brother who always took his sister up to the big farms for the dancing in May, hand in hand, happy. In that particular story, there is a gentle stroke of love, as the young woman, Helen Payrot, later married one of the son’s of the farm, and they moved into her village family home. When WW2 came, now as a young mother, she would return each morning to the farm to fetch a litre of milk for the day; a good hour’s trip before work began at 8 am. On his return from the concentration camps, her husband worked the earth and they both worked in the shoe factory.

The old folk lived at home. After five years of living in the camps it was not easy to adapt back to family life. The children had grown and the men and women had to learn again to live together.

In general the men were fit and healthy as they worked the farms in Germany and had enough to eat. There were of course those whose who did not return and there was great sadness for those families.

Marceline Serre
Marceline Serre

Helen was a mere lass of 14 when she began making the classic espadrilles famous in the Catalan region. Peasant footwear since at least the 14th century, espadrilles became urban workers’ shoes and then designer footwear and beachside musts alike. Wedge shaped Espadrilles were first popularised by French fashion designer, Yves Saint Laurent. In 1970 the Spanish espadrille manufacturer, Castaner, managed to interpret Saint Laurent’s vision and the wedge espadrilles were an instant hit, influencing fashion even today.

Helen, with a regular source of income supplemented by homesteading, lived a long and good life with the sun rising over the Mediterranean touching her old stone house early. It’s a view to keep you grateful; worth a lifetime of joy.

She knew my story too. I was another character in her book of village tales and she made me cry. On my first day I realised that we would be friends, despite the fact that she was partly deaf and blind and nearly one hundred years old. The fact that I spoke poor French with a dreadful accent just added to the fun and games. I took her to the window and showed her the direction of my land. Then she could place me.

In another home, the village café of an earlier era, I learned of the power of great love that lasted. How a mother-in-law judged a young woman as “below” her son, and yet the son followed his heart, till the end of his days. Like me, her first baby did not live long, so we can share sadness without shame together. In all the 60 years her child would have lived, she has never forgotten her. Neither of us ever will. Her name is Marceline Serre and everyone who frequented their café said they were “going to the Serre’s”.

Her grandfather had held the café before and after it passed to her mother-in-law. Marceline worked in the café but could not make a living from the café alone and had to take in extra work at home making espadrilles. Her husband, Louis, was a mechanic in St Laurent. Before having children she, like Helen, worked in the factory.

She grew up in Spain in the nearby town of Maçenet de Cabrenys. Her father was French and her mother, Spanish. There were many young French who went to Spain to volunteer to fight Franco.

She was eight years old when the Nationalists came in the night to take the rich and the nuns. They were never seen again. She will always remember that night in 1936. A night of horror. There were gunshots everywhere and the cross in the square was burned. In Spain there were only three classes: the rich, the poor and the clergy. It was a war of brother against brother, of families divided.

Until recently, there was only a footpath over the border into Spain, a route used by refugees fleeing General Franco in 1936. Through the work that I do, I am hearing about the people that arrived in Coustouges first-hand. The old ladies will all tell their story, to those who still wish to hear. Theirs are stories of villages that lived. Of hard work and long hours. Of the French returning first, as Franco’s rule began with the orders for all foreigners to leave Spain. They were welcomed back into the village, like Marceline, by those who had stayed. Then came the waves of Spanish families. Poor as they were, local residents collected food and big cooking pots and fed and warmed the people as they arrived. Many were helped, though many never made it through the cold rough hills.

Marceline remembers the women, children and old people who arrived first. They had absolutely nothing and it was very sad to realize they had left everything behind. Later came the men, often on horseback, but they did not stay long. The police escorted them to Saint Laurent de Cerdans where they remained for two or three days before being sent to the refugee camps in St Cyprien and Argelès.


Marceline explained how the government was heavily criticised at the time. She compared the situation to the migrants of today and how the government was not prepared for the number of people arriving.

At the beginning they had at least a bowl of soup but at the end the villagers could not even offer them that as they themselves lacked food.

The conditions in the camps were brutal and the refugees suffered greatly from hunger and extreme cold. Many died and others even returned to Spain where they became prisoners of war. They built a huge cross in Madrid where many had given their lives. Ironically it is there that Franco is buried.

It is like the last light in the long summer sky, up here, where the old folk stay; have always stayed; will stay until they die. Hopefully. That is their greatest wish. That they can stay in their own house, surrounded by the treasured memories in their homes where they raised their families, lost their husbands, love their grandchildren and yet, now sit in the twilight, wondering what the day will bring. They are happy to be around for their loved ones, but are more-than-ready to respond when their time comes. They feel that life has left them sitting, alone, without purpose and as I have heard said, “just breathing other people’s air”.

What is the difference between your granny, compost and a bag of seeds? Is there really that much difference ?

Out near the potting shed, in a corner tucked-out-of-the-way, compost often abides. The place where things break down and return their gifts to earth. And that bag of seeds, where did it come from? Mother plants. Yup, the old lady who raised a generation, to raise the next. The wisdom of the aged. Where the circle ends, our story begins.

It begins a hundred years ago at the end of memory lane. In the hearts of living people, the stories of life are stored. In time, these stories fade into the sunset; into unrecorded history. But it’s “The Story” that wants to be told; the dates clamouring to be registered; the events lining up to be recorded, whether dramatic or mundane. In time, only photo’s and keen descendants could tell you what I know now. Lives cross and track time, but they are small and often unknown. They walk no further than the local farm for milk, or no further than one trip to Paris. There are those that went further, or grew up in strange lands. And yet, they return home to retire. They are quiet. Their lives grew so much bigger than these mountains, and yet these mountains are home. A place “makes” a people. People make “a place”.

Leave a Comment