Tuesday 1 September: In their search for somewhere to live, Pa and Frans were sent first to a remote hamlet called Mourville-Hautes, where there was a Dutch (actually Flemish) priest. This involved taking a train to Villefranche, some 20 miles south-east of Toulouse, and then walking eight miles up into the hills. The priest turned them away, so they had to walk back to Villefranche and missed the last train to Toulouse.
We like walking, but thought 16 miles might be a bit much, especially if it involved (as we supposed) steep uphill climbs. And we did not want to miss the last train! There is no public transport in the area, so we decided to get a taxi there and walk back. The hamlet no longer has a full-time priest, but one of the residents showed us which house used to be the presbytery, where Pa had knocked at the door asking for help. The countryside was quite different from how we had imagined it: gently rolling hills rather than steep mountains. It was an easy walk, and took less time than we expected, so we were back in our hotel by 4pm.
Not wishing to waste time, we decided to follow up another link. Immediately before setting off for the Pyrenees, Pa and Frans spent eight days in Toulouse staying with a Madame Passaret in the Rue Beau Site. This was later in his story, but it made sense for us to look for the address while we were in the city. Pa did not mention the number of the house, but he did say that it was a bungalow. There were only two bungalows in the road, so we took photos of both and speculated about which was the right one.
At this point we were approached by a resident, who asked if we were looking for someone (she probably thought that we were acting suspiciously!). We explained our quest and she said that there was in the road an old lady who had lived there all her life, and might remember the family concerned. She took us to meet this old lady. When we asked if she could tell us where Mme Passaret used to live, she said ‘Here – she was my mother’. We couldn’t believe this, and mumbled something stupid about the house not being a bungalow. She then explained that they had built on another storey since 1943!
We were invited in, and made most welcome by Mme Odinot (as she now is) and her husband. Drinks and biscuits appeared, and we were shown lots of family photos, including one of the house as it appeared during the war (we would never have recognised it). The Passaret children were evacuated to the mountains, so Mme Odinot did not meet Pa and Frans. But stories were told, family histories swapped, and it really was like meeting up with long-lost friends.
Wednesday 2 September: After the Mourville-Hautes disaster, Pa and Frans were sent to Agen, further from Toulouse and in the opposite direction. There they met a Dutch priest, and were given overnight accommodation in a seminary. The following day they came to a pair of adjacent farms (belonging to a father and son) in the hamlet of Fals, between Agen and the small town of Astaffort. There they lived and worked (one on each farm) for the next two months.
We used Agen as our base while trying to explore this phase of Pa’s journey. A man at the tourist information office thought that the Jean XXIII Centre used to be a seminary. He had not heard of the farm, but suggested we tried the Departmental Archives office. There we were told we’d need to see a lady called Josette who was in charge of the ancient maps of the area. She was not available, so we had to make an appointment for 1.30 pm next day. Meanwhile we had to register as readers – a very lengthy process!
The John XXIII Centre seemed deserted, but we finally managed to track down a lady who confirmed that it was indeed a seminary in the past. She suggested that we might obtain other information from the Diocesan Archives, but by then it was too late to visit their office, so that too had to be postponed.
In the evening, Ian researched the telephone book online, trying to find the family Standaert who owned the farm. Pa did not name the farm, or give first names to any of the family. But we assumed they would be easy to trace, as they were Belgian and their name would not be common in this area. Little did we know! Ian found eight Standaerts at the first attempt.
Thursday 3 September: In the morning we made our first visit to Fals. There is a bus service, but it is very infrequent, so once again we had to hire a car. The mairie was closed, but we visited the church, and there we encountered a local lady who directed us to the farm. We went there, and met Bernard, a grandson of the man who employed Pa as a farmhand in 1943. He said that his cousin Marcel knew more about the war period than he did, and gave us directions to Marcel’s house in Astaffort. They certainly are a large family! And after talking to both, we are still not entirely clear about the family tree.
In the afternoon we had our appointment with Josette at the Departmental Archives. We were there two hours, much longer than expected. And after poring over old maps and record books, we did not glean a great deal of information. We discovered that ‘old man Standaert’ was called Seraphin, and that he bought the farm (called ‘Sabbath’, though there were variant spellings) in 1943 – just before Pa arrived.
At the Diocesan Archives a helpful man found the name of the priest in the register, and gave us details, including the fact that he was vicar of the Jacobin Church, so we went to have a look. It is no longer a church, but an art centre, and there was an exhibition on. We paid to go in so that we could see the church, which was exceptionally light and attractive.
Friday 4 September: Back to Fals again; left the car there and walked to Astaffort. Pa and Frans did this often (walking or cycling) in their ‘free time’ (four hours a week). It gave us a good impression of the countryside (not unlike England). In Astaffort we saw some of the places Pa mentions, such as the gendarmerie and the railway station (no longer in use). We also visited the cemetery, and found two Standaert family tombs! Now we have the names of all those Pa knew, although we are still somewhat confused about the younger generation.
On their way back from Astaffort on Saturdays, Pa and Frans would stop at a lonely spot by the River Gers, to bathe and wash their clothes. We found this area without difficulty. Pa also mentions a place that they visited when their free time was on Sunday: another spot on the river where there was a weir by a disused mill, and the water was deeper and clearer, so better for swimming. We asked at the Fals mairie where this place might be, and we were directed to a place near Astaffort. There was the mill and the weir, sure enough; but we could not imagine being there with ‘not a soul in sight’, as it was close to a main road and there were several people picnicking. On our way back to Fals we detoured to see another mill, which has been converted to provide living accommodation. But there was a weir, it was deserted, and fitted Pa’s description exactly. Assuming that the mill was converted post-war, which seems likely, we had found their swimming pool!