As a child, Ireland was our guilty family secret. To be fair, the 1970’s wasn’t a great time to be a celtic tiger in mainland Britain, due chiefly to the exploits of the Irish Republican Army, blowing up civilians in my hometown of Birmingham and other English cities.
This and the ever present stereotype of the drunken thick, lazy paddy was enough to drive any first generation English family underground. The family name was changed, the Irish relatives were shunned and our heritage was buried. I couldn’t do much about the ginger hair…
My Granny Kate however, couldn’t quite keep her mouth shut. And I’m very, very nosy.
I always knew there was something “different” about her family. And being a fully paid up member of children’s literature, I fantasised that she must have been descended from an Irish King, complete with a treasure trove and a whole county to rule over (she always mentioned some weird places called Roscommon and Mayo like anyone in Britain had ever heard of such nonsense).
Thanks mainly to Ancestry.co.uk and the publication of Irish parish records, I have been able to discover the family secret…
We are Irish Travellers.
So. Not only did I have what is commonly viewed as the worst accent in the British Isles (Brummie), with ginger hair and a rather “common” set of relatives from the most dubious part of town, but I’m also a gypsy! Since Cher likes to put us amongst tramps and thieves, it’s not hard to imagine why my family decided to “bury” such revelations, become settled and start learning all the words to the National Anthem. I was even given a monarch’s name! (Albeit a German one but whatever…)
Somehow I always knew.
My gran used to sing a strange song about being in a caravan. And she played the spoons. Seriously though, the family worked traditionally with metal, my great grandfather shod horses during WW1 (Irish people did fight for King and Country although some people refuse to believe this). And they were unbelievably poor. I mean, the poorest of the poor. Yet they managed somehow to keep out of the workhouses, instead, living together as family units in one room, fixing stuff.
Ancestry.co.uk has enabled me to confirm that my dna is 96%, Irish, although distinct from the settled Irish population. So there we have it. That, plus the 4% Eastern European (Russian Roma), about puts the rather appropriate tin lid on it…
I’ve always been a wanderer. And a lover of camping. And I’m a dab hand at mending things…
So naturally, I needed to go back to Ireland. To find out where my family came from. And what made them end up in a Victorian slum in the heart of the West Midlands.
I had reservations about coming to Marseille to be honest. It seems to be a real mixed bag down here. There are some dodgy areas to be sure. I guess every large city has them whether they’re in the south of France or not. But I’d seen the French Connection, and heard about its ancient history and was curious.
By now I was on day 14 of my 21 day road tour around France, and fatigue was setting in. Because I’m only staying in a place for 2-3 nights maximum it can be difficult to make connections, and it’s also tiring. The same conversation about myself. People are very curious about this solo, female traveller with appalling French. But they are curious in a nice way and I have had the most wonderful reception from the people here. Do try to speak some French, it gets you a long way and then most people speak a little English so you can have a decent conversation.
Anyway, onwards 2.5 hours from Nice towards Marseille. I stayed at the Belle Vue Hotel which overlooks the old port and is a wonderful place to people watch. Don’t expect luxury but the rooms all have a wonderful view, which is what you pay for. Having said that, they are clean, the staff are very friendly and there is a wonderful bar where, if you’re lucky (and I have been, twice so far) you can get a balcony table and watch the world go by. Breakfast is E10 and a good, traditional, continental fayre. Definitely worth a look.
I love Marseille. It’s a place where you can see people from every corner of the globe. There were jazz musicians playing next to African musicians; the smell of all of the different types of food was mouth watering.
When I’m on the coast, I eat fish. What better food to eat than one which has made it from ocean to table within a few hours? Solo dining in France is easy peasy. It’s tourists that seem to have a problem with it. I enjoyed countless numbers of lunches and dinners with only my fellow waiters/waitresses for company. It’s a great opportunity to try out your French, (I speak French, they speak English, that way we both get to practice), and waiting staff are the perfect people from whom to extract local knowledge about where to go, where not to go, and where to get the best deals. Try it. They won’t bite. And you might even get an extra sneaky glass of wine if you smile sweetly enough… 🙂
On the subject of dining for one… some rules:
1. The view. Get a table with a view. Preferably in a piazza, plaza or somewhere where people and the world wander by. You’ll have no need to open that book that you’ve brought along with you.
2. Friendly waiting staff. They will entertain you, treat you and if you’re lucky, take a great photo of you with yet another glass of wine and cigarette…
3. Eat early. By early, I mean around 7 ish. The restaurant will be quite empty and you will have the pick of the tables. Also, you are unlikely to annoy the maitre d’ with your insistence on having the premier table in the restaurant…by yourself…for the whole evening.
4. Dress nicely. The maitre d’ is likely to enjoy having you sit in prime position in his restaurant as you make it look good. They don’t underestimate the value of having good looking customers sitting at their tables, so take advantage.
Marseille is a cosmopolitan melting pot. Economic conditions and political unrest in Europe and the rest of the world brought several waves of immigrants during the 20th century: Greeks and Italians started arriving at the end of the 19th century and in the first half of the 20th century, up to 40% of the city’s population was of Italian origin;Russians in 1917; Armenians in 1915 and 1923; Vietnamese in the 1920s, 1954 and after 1975; Corsicans during the 1920s and 1930s; Spanish after 1936; North Africans in the inter-war period ; Sub-saharan Africans after 1945; the pieds-noirs from the former French Algeria in 1962; and then from Comoros In 2006, it was reported that 70,000 city residents were considered to be of Maghrebian origin, mostly from Algeria. The second largest group in Marseille in terms of single nationalities were from the Comoros, amounting to some 45,000 people. Souks jostle for position next to huge Cathedrals topped with golden statues of the Virgin.
A wonderful place to sit and watch life go by. As in any place, just hang onto your wallet…
Today I took a boat to the Island where Chateau D’If is located. It was Marseille’s equivalent of Alcatraz and where the political prisoners were taken during the Napoleonic times. It’s also where they threw 3,500 Protestants (Huguenots) in gaol.
Chateau D’If is also the setting for the fictional novel by political writer Alexandre Dumas, “The Count of Monte Cristo”. Edmund Dantes is put in gaol for crimes he didn’t commit and spends many years at Chateau D’If. In the same way that people think that Sherlock Holmes existed, they generally believe that Dantes did actually become a prisoner here. It is also supposedly the place where the Man in the Iron Mask was imprisoned. Both fictional characters however there were many political and religious people who were sentenced to stay here, and died before their release. It’s well worth the boat trip to visit and see the graffiti left by prisoners as well as the cells:
By the way…Did you know…. the French national anthem stems from a song that a group of Marseille revolutionaries, who walked to Paris, sang during the road. The song became know as the Marseillaise and became the anthem. There you go…. 🙂
I imagine that the smell of the wild garlic would have got up my Great Grandfather’s nose long before the Hun did. For a man whose life before 1915 had been submersed in the iron foundries of the Black Country, central England, the sounds and smells must have been new and strange.
Driving through the fighting fields of the Somme, it seemed as though the whole area was asleep, but not a peaceful sleep. I switched my radio off. It seemed incongruous to witness acre after acre of battlefield whilst whistling along to “I get by with a little help from my friends” . The deaths of so many men in such a small area have rendered the whole of this part of France to be permanently shell shocked. A total of 1,304,000 men died here. The earth seems to scream silently at man’s inhumanity to man, yet only birdsong is audible. Whilst many soldiers were exhumed and reburied in war graves, the majority proved to be unidentifiable and indistinguishable from one another. This band of brothers lived together and died together. Nationality was no barrier to destruction. Everyone lost.
Farmers toil the land now, rich in the nitrogen left behind by the lifeblood of the fallen; providing nutrients for the crops. British ex-pats are busy converting barns into holiday homes. Local children go to school, and then move away with the need for employment and prospects. Life does carry on here, but a walk in the fields and through the woods surrounding the villages, and it’s easy to imagine the pounding of the machine guns, the screams of the men and horses and the groaning of the land, ripped apart and bleeding to death. I wandered how long it took for the birdsong to reappear…
There are few old buildings in the local villages. Everything is 20th century made. Each village has its own war cemetery, honouring both foreigners and locals alike. Monuments mark the sacrifice made by groups of British guys who marched off to war together, such as the Manchester and Liverpool Pals. The only time I can imagine that these two fiercely rival cities would be happy to have their names carved side by side.
My Great Grandfather fought to liberate Guillemont, an unassuming village but vital to breaking through the defences of the German line on the Western Front. Little remains of the Guillemont that he would have marched/crawled into; the village was virtually razed to the ground thanks to the monthly pounding of machine gun fire and the constant shelling from both sides. On the crossroads outside of the village sits a memorial stone to the Twentieth (Light) Division who played a key role in the liberation. It took 4 attempts from July 1916, and the use of the new tanks between 3rd-6th September 1916 (and massive loss of life) to finally capture Guillemont from the German army. By the end of August 1916, British casualties were 251,000 men. How my Great Grandfather survived, is a miracle. But with what consequences? The conditions were tough:
“Preparations for the attack were being pushed forward. Unfortunately just at this time, bad weather set in, and this, together with the continued and heavy hostile shelling in which gas shells were largely used, made the work extremely difficult. The trenches were deep in mud and water and were constantly being blown in…both No Man’s Land and the ground behind the trenches were covered with dead bodies which had been lying out for weeks, and the state of the whole line was foul.”
(Captain V E Inglefield “The History of the Twentieth (Light) Division”, 1921).
For the solo traveller, especially one on a road trip with hundreds of miles to cover, it can be useful to break up both the solitude and the driving fatigue with an organised tour. I chose to hop a ride with a jolly bunch of Aussies, most of whom were in the middle of wonderful travel trips themselves. They were travelling through Europe having stopped off at London and Paris, and were making their way down to either the south of France or on towards Switzerland and Italy.
I had the pleasure of their company for a whole day, lunch included. I also had the interesting addition of seeing the First World War from the Australian perspective. The tour was excellent, organised by Terres de memoire (www.terresdememoire.com). If you think that you know all there is to know about a part of history, try taking in a tour catering for visitors from a country other than your own.You will soon find that your view of history is very one dimensional. Where yesterday, I had visited the places that my great grandfather, Arthur Greenhill had fought alongside his British comrades, today I learnt about the vital roll played by the Anzacs in breaking through the German frontline. I also learnt about the appalling loss of life on behalf of a nation which volunteered to fight alongside its Motherland, and how it marked the transition from a nationbeing tethered to the British apron strings, to one creating its own history. They played their part in the theatre of war which occurred along a 30km line, for a gain of 12km of ground, killing around one million people.
1916 saw an impasse between Germany and Britain. Trench warfare had set in, with neither side being able to break through the other’s defences. Loss of life was high on both sides. Approximately 60,000 men died on the first day. The Australians came to relieve the beleaguered Brits whose numbers were dramatically depleted. Pozieres was the place that would see the Australians’ finest hour.
Attacking during the night, from the low land up to the German high land vantage point, the Anzacs succeeded in breaking through the defences. Here stands theAustralian National Memorial at Villers-Bretonneux. From here it can be seen just what a magnificent tour de force the troops must have been.
The German army could see for miles across the French countryside, and as they were always in a defending position, and as they had prepared for months in advance, with carefully constructed trenches and defence mechanisms, the Australian victory cannot be underestimated. It also marked a psychological change in the German army. It demonstrated the fact that they could be beaten. In all, around 624,000 Allies and 500,000 German died at the Somme. The numbers are unimaginable. Environmental studies show that iron levels in the fields of the Somme and other battlefield areas continue to be significantly higher than average, due to the large number of casualties and the intensity of the shelling.
It was a joy to travel on a bus (luxury – being able to stare out across the countryside, and no trying to overtake tractors) in the company of those who shared my history but a different one. The French guide was friendly, informative and genuinely seemed to take delight in discussing all matters war. They were as curious about this solo female traveller as I was about them travelling halfway around the world. A wonderful lunch hour was spent in the company of people who thought I was a little bit crazy, but full of guts.
One of the highlights of the day was when a lady found her great uncle, buried in one of the many Commonwealth and German cemeteries that we visited (she had emailed the guide beforehand with details and they managed to find him), and share in her tears of sorrow and pride. This was a memorable day for us all…
A read of “All Quiet on the Western Front” by Erich Maria Remarque will show just how horrific the war was for Germans as well as the Allies…
Mooching through oneof the farmer’s fields, I came across some shrapnel. The fields continue to give up First World War artefacts, with soldiers being found and sometimes identified, on a regular basis.
On the way to the largest British Memorial to the 70,000 British soldiers still unaccounted for, in the Somme alone, we met a lovely 82 year old lady called Madame Christine. Her late husband was a farmer and would regularly come home with empty shell cases that he had ploughed up:
She also had 2 live ones:
The Département du Déminage, an arm of the French government operates in as much secrecy (to allay citizen concern) as possible to eliminate the unexploded shells which litter Northeastern France. This department has, since 1946, collected eighteen million artillery shells, ten million grenades, six hundred thousand aerial bombs and six hundred thousand underwater mines (this figure does, of course, include ordnance from W.W.II) and cleared and reclaimed two million acres. The department also receives about two million calls for the pick up of unexploded devices per year; these include grenades, mines, shells and bombs.
Mme Christine spoke no English but seemed to be able to understand me when I asked if she would mind having her photo taken with me, and adored the fact that my name is Victoria. She lives alone, her only regular contact with the outside world being the occasional group of tourists that turn up to admire her collection of war memorabilia, courtesy of the lovely tour guide Sylvestre. I would have loved to have shared a French brandy with her and discussed past times (with the help of a translator…Sylvestre perhaps?)