In 2012 there were 12,320 centenarians in Britain, up from 2,420 in 1981, an enormous increase. Here in Haute-Savoie and Savoie, the 2014 edition of the Almanach Savoyard was published last October; it lists 289 people in the region who are aged 99 or more – the eldest was born in August 1905, the year in which the Wright brothers achieved sustained and controlled powered flight; now, we are planning to send colonists to Mars.
Each year, the reflections of some of those who have reached their hundredth year are recorded in the Almanach. Of the twenty-four people interviewed in 2013, seventeen still live either in the village where they were born, or not very far away. Alice Lacroix still lives in the actual house where she was born. She and her husband ran a butcher’s shop, and during the war François Lacroix regularly delivered illicit supplies to the maquis in the area; he was also a sagati – he visited local farms during the winter in order to kill the caïon, the family pig. Nowadays, unfortunately, animals have to be transported to a slaughterhouse.
Two of the centenarians know each other well, through the Compagnie des Guides de Chamonix. Alfred Burnet, who has always lived in Vallorcine, is the doyen of the Compagnie, and the first Chamonix mountain guide to reach the age of 100. “Well, it had to happen to someone,” he shrugs. Vallorcine is close to the border with Switzerland; the villagers had vines on the slopes above Martigny, and also indulged in a little smuggling: coffee, sugar, tobacco… Having tried various occupations, Alfred Burnet became a guide in his thirties. The modern mountain refuges are luxurious compared with the huts of those days, and at that time, security consisted of hemp ropes knotted round the waist; Alfred remembers evenings spent unpicking sodden or frozen knots. “I always had strong legs,” he says. “Once, descending fromMont Blanc, I met a colleague who was climbing up, but who was exhausted. I suggested that we swap ropes – and I did the ascent again!”
If you take the cable car from Chamonix up to the Aiguille de Midi, you will notice several éperons – spurs of rock – just before you reach the platform; one of these, as high as the Aiguille de Midi itself, is the éperon Frendo, named after the first person to climb it, Edouard Frendo, who scaled the rock in 1941. Frendo was Tunisian by birth, but was brought up in Marseilles, and was one of the first Chamonix guides who was not a local man. He organised expeditions to the Himalayas,Japan, Africa and the Andes, and a mountain in Greenland is named after him. Frendo was one of the founders of the national ski and climbing school in Chamonix, wrote several books on skiing and climbing, and created a business distributing mountaineering equipment. Meanwhile his wife Gabrielle, now 100, was also fully occupied, working as a midwife in Chamonix. How many babies did she deliver in the course of her long career? She couldn’t possibly count.
Many of the centenarians came from farming families. Marcel Veillet still lives in the village near Chambéry where he was born, and is photographed carrying a large basket of hay, his scythe over his shoulder. He used to have cows and to cultivate tobacco; the last tobacco grower in the region gave it up only in 2012. Emile Falcoz was another dairy farmer. He was the eldest son, and after his father died when Emile was young, he had no choice but to run the modest family farm near Annecy. At that time they had neither ox nor horse to do the work; cows with iron-shod hooves were used. And there was no pasteurisation then; the milk was delivered to a condenserie which produced sweetened condensed milk and milk powder.
Germaine Joly has lived in the same farmhouse for 78 years, having arrived on foot in 1935 with the family’s two cows. She was the youngest of ten siblings; her eldest brother, aged 20, was killed early in WWI, shortly after she was born. And Juliette Corner was the thirteenth of fourteen siblings; they had to walk seven km to school and then back again, so long as there was not too much snow or they wasn’t required to help on the farm. In those days, she recalls, countrywomen would give birth in the stables so that their newborn child would be surrounded by warmth.
In contrast, Roger Lapierre’s home village no longer exists; it was dynamited and disappeared under the waters of the Genissiat dam, built in 1948. It was hard for his parents, but Roger had long left home. He had dreamed of becoming a teacher but one of his younger sisters suffered from a club foot, and Roger had to work at the local factory in order to earn enough money to pay for the necessary operation. He studied in the evenings, but in the end became not a teacher but an officer of the police judiciare, the criminal investigation division of the French police, working in Paris for a long time and then in Annecy. He remembers escorting General de Gaulle on his visits to the area, and how the first thing de Gaulle did when he alighted from the train was to shake the hand of the guard.
Others in this group of centenarians experienced life away from the mountains. Marie Rosset was brought up near Chambéry and at the age of 17 was placed by her parents with a Parisian couple who had come to the region to take a cure at the waters of Challes-les-Eaux. Marie spent several years inParis, looking after the couple’s child, and discovered the cultural delights of the capital. Each summer the family returned to the Alps, however, and one year they stayed in a village above St Gervais – where Marie met her husband-to-be. It was something of a shock, exchanging the life ofParis for a mountain farmhouse. The town below could be reached only on foot; on one occasion, Marie recalled, she struggled up the path carrying a rocking horse for her son.
Sabine Fraissard, too, left the mountains for a while. Like many others from the Tarentaise, her family left Savoie to live on a farm near Marseilles, where her father bought a car and Sabine obtained her driving licence at the age of 18. She used to drive around the city daily, delivering milk; there weren’t very many cars around then, let alone being driven by an 18-year old young woman. Later, she moved back to Savoie, where she became a rebouteuse, having discovered by chance that she knew instinctively how to set bones, and then learned that she had inherited this gift from her father and grandfather. People came to her with their back pains, muscular problems and sprains, sometimes their regular doctor sent them to her.
Anne Pépin grew up at Bessans in the Haute-Maurienne, where her parents had a café/grocery/tabac. On leaving school, Anne went with her mother to Aix-les-Bains, to begin teacher training. It was the first time Anne had left the mountains. They took the trolleybus which ran from Lanslebourg to Modane between 1923 and 1940, and then the train to Aix. Anne was astonished; it was a different world – the rich and magnificently attired English visitors, the elegant cars, the casino… After completing her studies, she returned to the Haute-Maurienne to teach, finishing her career in Chambéry where she still lives. But she retained strong links with Bessans, where her sister Ambroisine took over their parents’ business and the café became renowned for its wonderful vin chaud. Ambroisine ran the business until she was over 80, retiring only with the advent of the euro. I went to Bessans in 2003 to ski – alas, a year too late to try the famous vin chaud; “Brosine” had never divulged her secret recipe.
Irma Maître, too, ran a café. Irma was born in the Isère valley, above Bourg-St Maurice; school was a half-hour walk away, and in the winter there was always the danger of avalanche. Irma’s husband was director of the local electricity company; in addition, the family had a small summer agricultural business. Very traditional, Irma has undertaken a pilgrimage to Lourdes several times, consults the wisdom of the Almanach daily, and wore the traditional Savoyard headgear (coiffe) into the 1950s. (I remember people still wearing dirndls daily in Innsbruck and the surrounding villages when I worked in Austria in the early 1960s.) Irma is delighted when each August her great-granddaughter Adèle wears traditional costume for the local fête de la Rosière; it is the dress Irma wore on her wedding day in 1931!
Like Irma, Victorine Chapuis was born in 1913 – the year the railway line reached Bourg-St Maurice. Many of the centenarians had direct experience of WWII but some, like Victorine, were touched by both world wars. Her father was gassed during WWI, and died in 1919. Victorine married a customs officer on the French/Italian border, and lived at Séez near Bourg-St Maurice. Albert was called up, and then in 1940, when their village was bombed by the Italians, Victorine was evacuated with her three children, several bags and two pushchairs. The bridges had been destroyed and they had to struggle across fields in the dark. They reached Aime, about 15 km away, where they were able to take a train to the Haute-Loire. The family was eventually reunited and then in 1947, Albert was transferred to the occupied zone, to the border with Germany in Alsace, where they lived in a requisitioned flat, equipped with a bathroom – a luxury they had never had before.
Also affected by the war was Marie Dugand, who together with her husband Marius ran a bakery in Annecy for 36 years. They supplied not only their individual customers, but also numerous hotels, work canteens and even a monastery; Marie’s day began at 5 a.m. and rarely ended before 8 p.m. But in 1940, Marius was arrested and taken to a prison camp in Germany; Marie was left to run the bakery. At one point, the Germans closed the business down as they had noticed a discrepancy between the quantity of flour used and the number of ration tickets received; Marie had been supplying bread to the maquis. Meanwhile, her husband had made several attempts to escape; Marie once sent him a parcel containing a compass concealed in a loaf of bread. But Marius was caught each time, and did not get home until the war ended.
Not all the centenarians are Savoyards by birth. Marguerite Donche-Gay was born in Paris, where she qualified as a nurse. In 1941 she had just left the hospital where she worked when part of it was destroyed by Allied bombs destined for the Renault factory nearby. Then in the liberation battles of 1944, the hospitals and the morgues filled up with casualties and bodies; Marguerite recalls how a million francs were discovered on the body of one high-ranking German officer. Her husband, also a nurse, was a Savoyard and when one of their sons became ill they moved to Haute-Savoie, where they set up a bakery. In 1956, however, they returned to the Paris hospital, where Marguerite ran a dispensary until she retired – she thought; in fact, after returning to Haute-Savoie, she worked for several years in a Geneva clinic.
Virginia Cuglietta was born in Calabria, in Italy, in 1913. Her mother, widowed young, could not support her four children and so placed seven-year old Virginia and one of her sisters in an orphanage, where Virginia remained until she was 19. Life was hard and the children were often hungry; Virginia remembers how one night she pretended to be sleepwalking and went down to the kitchens to steal some bread and cheese; the director of the orphanage surprised her, but didn’t dare “wake” her. Virginia married, but her husband was conscripted into Mussolini’s campaigns in Ethiopia and then in Libya, before being taken prisoner by the English at the beginning of WWII; in total, he spent nine years away from home. But in 1947 he obtained work in Albertville and in 1948, on this side of the Alps, he and Virginia were at last able to pick up their lives together, and to have a family.
So many of these centenarians had hard-working lives. At the age of 100, Renée Gaud is still busy, and is well known in the region. When she was young she worked in hotels on Lake Geneva, while training to be a nurse and giving up much of her spare time to the Red Cross. Then at the beginning of WWII, she worked for two years in a hospital at St Nazaire, before returning to Haute-Savoie to manage a grocery. After the war, she began a very successful egg-production business and eventually, in her sixties, moved also into the production of foie gras. She hasn’t stopped working; Renée takes part in the organisation of tasting days and now also raises rare poultry breeds. She says that if she were ten years younger, she’d happily begin a new project…
Albert Roux-Mollard worked in the steelworks at Ugine. In the 1950s and 1960s the works employed 4,000, in three 8-hour shifts a day. In the beginning, the steelworkers had virtually no protection except an apron – no gloves, helmets or protective footwear; as the molten metal began to flow, the heat would be intense. To keep going, the men would drink the local Aiton wine – much more thirst quenching, according to Albert, than water. And today, still merry and fit, he never has a meal without a glass… Like Albert, Léopold Perret doesn’t mention having been married. He lives in Annecy, where he was a neighbour and good friend of Emile Rosset, who founded the Almanach Savoyard in 1945. “And now I’m in it,” says Léopold. “If Emile could see that…!”
Footnote: This blog post was begun in October 2013, but completing it has been held up due to various circumstances; I should like to think that the people of whom I write are still with us and enjoying good health.