A carrot by the railroad

My grandfather was a railroad man. Blue collar to a fault. I never saw him without his blue heavy duty cotton jacket and his cap. Well, never? Not quite. Sometimes, when he visited us in Paris or in the magic house in Normandy, he wore a black suit with vest and tie. A starched white shirt. ‘Rest of the time? The blue cotton worker’s jacket. A thick cloth, called “coutil” in French, designed to last for centuries. Almost. It must have been warm in the winter. And the summer. His cap? Mostly glued on his head. Outside. Not inside. One took off one’s hat inside those days. A blue cap matching the colour of his eyes, of my brother’s and little sister’s. (Me? Green eyes. Like my mother’s. We were probably adopted.)

At heart, my grandfather was probably a farmer. He came from a long line of Breton farmers and peasants. He was born in 1890, in a small town in Brittany: Piré-sur-Seiche, between Rennes and Vitré. There are still many relations there, alive or dead. Half the monument to the dead of WWI bears the names of his brothers, cousins, in-laws. A family estate, my brother says.

Drafted in 1910, he spent his three years of military service learning a trade. A mechanic, I think. The automobile industry was soaring. New models of cars and lorries coming out every month. Better than toiling the earth, I guess. Though in his mind he remained a farmer. A “cul-terreux”, as the people of the city call the farmers. “Terroni”, the Italians say. I must say I am proud to come from a peasant, “cul-terreux”, family on my mother’s side. Hard, grey hands. The earth never really washes away.

In 1913, at the end of his military service, he should have been demobilized, but there were “war threats” everywhere. Nothing ever changes, does it? So, he signed up again for three more years. Then came 1914. Four more years of wearing the uniform. Fighting and fighting. Losing his brothers, his brother-in-law, his cousins… I have written about it in “The bride wore black”: https://equinoxio21.wordpress.com/2016/06/08/1916-the-bride-wore-black/

1918. The war ends in November. He is demobilized in 1919. Looks for a job. Not really keen to go back to farming, I guess. Finds a job as a chauffeur for a young Marquis. My brother tells me they met during the war, one was probably an officer, my grandfather a private or a corporal at best. (Need to check the stripes on his sleeve in an old photograph.)

The “Roaring Twenties” begin. Everyone wants to forget about the war. Women cut their hair and dresses. “Shocking!” (Today women are killed for burning their head veil. You know where.) In France, in the 20’s, Charleston was the popular dance. My grandfather drove the Marquis to endless parties. And drinking binges. The Marquis seemed to be intent to drink his inheritance as fast as possible. Until his family put a stop to it. Married the Marquis to a fair heiress. And fired my grandfather. End of chauffeuring.

Early twenties. My grandfather, Louis Prodault, at the “helm” of the Marquis’ Delaunay-Belleville. Nice car.

Meanwhile, my aunt Marité, (short for Marie-Thérèse) and my mother Renée, were born. One had to make a living to feed the family: my grandfather joined the French railroad until his retirement.

I always wondered how he felt in 1940, when the French Army lost the war in three weeks washed out by Guderian’s Panzer Divisions. He must have been near 50, close to retirement.

“This is all very well, but what about the carrot?”

“I’ll come to that.”

My grandmother Augustine died in the winter of 1944. The war was far from over. She died of a heart condition and the deprivations of the war. My grandfather eventually remarried. My mother always hated her stepmother’s guts… Family stories. When I was little, I only knew Marie as my “grandmother”. A small lady in black.

My grandfather lived in a “blue-collar” house, at the edge of Rennes, the largest city and capital of the Brittany region. I still remember the house vividly. Shaped in L, with a large garden to the right, a high line of hazelnut trees at the back of the garden. A small door hidden between the trees led to the fields and woods beyond. I doubt the house is still there, it’s probably all been built over by now. Back then? The house was the last one on the street before the fields began.

There were chicken picking at the gravel lane between the house and the garden. A number of rabbits were kept in “clapiers”, rabbit hutches. He was a peasant at heart, I tell you. Now, anybody who’s walked by rabbit hutches will understand the smell I still remember… Many, many years later, I realize I never wondered about what was served at lunch.

We visited my grandparents once a year, when we were on “furlough” in Europe, from whatever out-of-the way place in Africa or the Far East we were stationed. I remember the trains from Paris to Brittany. Steam machines, smelling of burning coal. The first electric trains started later, in the mid to late sixties. “Children! Do not lean outside the window!” my mother would say. “There might be another train coming or you might get an ‘escarbille’ in the eye.” Fun! I had to look ‘escarbille’ up. The translator says ‘scrape’. Basically, a tiny burning particle of coal blown away from the engine. Not too good in the eye.

I remember when my parents bought him a TV. A luxury then. An enormous (I was six or eight) grey contraption. Deeper than wide. Probably didn’t have a screen larger than 15 inches. Black and white of course. Only one channel. Government controlled. Those were the days of the War in Algeria. But no-one talked about the war. Any war. My father carried the bloody TV to the Montparnasse station, the platforms, the train, the station at Rennes, etc. My grandparents were delighted.

One summer when we visited, my grandfather told us (my mother, sister, and little me) to come with him on a stroll. We came out of the garden, through the small door in the hazelnut trees. I remember we turned right. And off we went walking in the countryside behind the house. Fields of golden wheat, barley. Small woods. After a ten minutes’ walk, we arrived at railway tracks. Trust a railroad man to keep tracks at hand. Always.

He kept a vegetable garden there, just a few yards away from the tracks. Why there? I don’t know. Nowadays there would probably be two dozen regulations sternly forbidding the private use of railway land, but at that time? Who cared? The earth was probably better than in his own garden.

I remember a dark, rich smelling earth. Lines and lines of vegetables neatly planted. Lettuce. Leeks, onions, garlic, some tomatoes possibly. My grandfather showed us his garden. Quite proud. Explaining each vegetable to us kids.

There was a line of what looked like weeds. Long green tufts sprouting from the earth. I asked my grandfather:

“Et ça c’est quoi, Grand-Père?” What is that?

He smiled. Lit his yellow corn Gauloise again, and said.

“Come here, Gamin (kid), I’ll show you.”

He put one knee on the ground. Inspected the weeds. Pulled one bunch, and came out with a carrot.

I was amazed. No idea carrots grew in the earth. No idea they grew at all. I imagined there were carrot factories. Just like milk. Milk came out from glass bottles then. Now milk has been upgraded to carton boxes.

My grandfather shook some of the earth away, then wiped the carrot on his blue sleeve. (See the importance of a blue-collar heavy-duty sleeve?) and handed the carrot to me.

“Take a bite, Gamin. This is the best carrot you’ll ever eat.”

I looked at the carrot in my grandfather’s calloused hands. There was still a lot of earth on it.

I looked into my grandfather’s blue eyes. I didn’t have to look at my mother. She was sending me mental, telepathic orders: “Eat. The. Bl..dy. Carrot. Now.” (I was about 7 or 8. In those days one followed orders. Even telepathic.)

So, I gingerly took the carrot from my grandfather’s hand. Took a small bite. Then another. And another. He was right. It was the best carrot I ever ate.

My Grandfather was a carrot man.

Louis Prodault, 1890-1969

Thank you for flying Equinoxio Time-space shuttle. And remember:

Free 🇺🇦

106 thoughts on “A carrot by the railroad

    • One does share more than one thinks with each other, right? Across borders, languages… The blue jacket was unmistakable…
      I have many stories in my head.Not enough time to write them all, but I’m working on that.
      Maybe you can write a post on your grandfather. Do you have a few pictures?

      Tot ziens Peter

  1. I enjoyed reading about your grandparents–of course, the carrot was the best part! Coincidentally, my paternal grandmother’s name was Augustine, and she died of a heart condition.

      • He seems like a real character and to a little expat boy must have seemed a huge mass of contradictions. I imagine that he saw you and your sisters as real characters to! That generation were a tough breed and resourceful!
        I had once thought of doing a WW1 related post but could not bring pen to paper. The devastation of communities was simply terrible and, as you say, a scan of the memorial in any village shows brothers, cousins and whole farms ripped apart forever. I am grateful your grandfather survived and that your memories of him are so vivid!
        All ok here, thank you!! Stay well!

      • He was a good man. They were a tough breed but honest to a fault.
        I personally find it difficult to watch any WWI movie. On the screen we know it’s staged. But I have the death certificates of my family signed by the Ministry of war. They range from August-September ’14 till October ’18.
        Incidentally, the churches in Germany have the same plaques, with the names of those from the village fallen in the North of France. Likewise, 5 young men with the same surname….
        U 2 stay well.

      • Aug/Sept 14!! 😦
        Oh yes, I am in no way decrying one side over another. It was a terrible and almost pointless war. But one that decimated a continent for generations. 😦 It really should have been the war to end all wars and yet it did not. Humanity is indeed a strange creature!

      • Yes, my grandmother’s little brother got killed 3 weeks after the start of the war. My grandfather’s last brother to fall “á l’ennemi” was killed a month before the end.
        And no it did not. And now we have another imbecile on the loose…

      • Geez, that is exactly the sacrifice I talked of reading on the old memorials! 😦 I cannot begin to imagine how your gt-grandparents managed to get through the sacrifice of two children!!

      • My great-grandparents lost 5 of 8 boys. I can imagine my great-grandmother “sur le pas de sa porte”, seeing the mailman at the end of the street, crossing herself, and going back in hurriedly. “No. Please. Not another telegramme from the War office.”
        Hence my post on “The bride wore black” which you may have seen.
        Bretons made up 60-80% of the war casualties. Peasants mostly. Many did not even speak French. Tough, brave soldiers… And many fallen.

      • Truly awful numbers – I dare not say statistics for each one was a precious life!!
        Some of the reports from WW1 make depressing reading about the number of Bretons accidentally shot because they did not understand when being challenged in French. I think that war had a bigger impact on Breton society than any of the wars of the medieval times, the wars of religion or the Revolution. 😦

      • Not surprising. You know where the word “baragouin” comes from? (Means charabia, unintelligible mumbling). Comes from Breton ‘bara’: bread, and ‘Gouin’: wine. Which is what the Breton soldiers asked for and the officers obviously did not understand. “Baragouin? Baragouin? What are you talking about?”
        Yes, the impact was ferocious. Yet, those who came back never complained, never whined…

      • I thought so a few months ago. “Long gone”. But the Ukrainians are showing us the opposite. Men and women. They are there. “They will come from the shadows.” 😉

      • Reading the French news, I am so amazed at the blindness. Zelensky is probably no choir boy. (Can’t afford to be) but nobody seems to realize that Ukrainians are fighting for the freedom of Europe. And bravely. Well, no-one seems to remember the English fighting alone for years. Almost two years until Pearl Harbour…

      • We do. It probably is an unforeseen consequence of Hannah Arendt’s wonderful insight that every human being has to reinvent the world the minute s/he is born. Hence for her the importance of education… To pass on memories.
        What she had not foreseen is that such “reinvention” leaves the door open to new arbitrary every one or two generations… (I hadn’t seen it coming.) (And I’m no Harendt!)

      • You are right! That is a very sharp insight indeed! I clearly need to read more of her work, so, thank you for the pointer!
        Even during that week before the invasion, I was thinking “no, not going to happen” and yet, here we are 6 months into total war in Europe, where we said “never again” twice! 😦

      • Arendt? Probably one of the top five thinkers of the 20th century, along with Camus, excluding Sartre… 😉 Also serves to brush up your ancient Greek… LOL
        And as for War, we’re still saying: “No. It’s a squirmish. It’s not happening…”

  2. One of the many stories of a lifetime… Triggers some of my own memories. My grandfather was also a railroad man. But I was born kinda late, didn’t really get to know him much; I was nine when he died, as quietly as he lived. No carrot, just a fascination for tracks and trains – that’s what I got from him. Maybe. Ah, the memories…

    • Memories… It’s what keeps people alive. I always my grandfather will be “alive” until the last people who’ve known him. That’s my brother and me. Your grandfather is still alive. 😉

      • Throughout time there have been – and probably are and will always be – remarkable people who will be remembered over many generations. Some for their good deeds, some for their bad deeds. For regular people though there are only their close families and maybe very good friends that will carry on their names for a little time, then they will be forgotten. Graveyards can’t tell long stories. But then again all stories intertwine to make one single neverending story of the humans on planet Earth. And that may just be enough…

  3. Such a beautifully warm story, you took me right there, I could see, smell and taste it all. Ah, the universality of family politics. And the sadness of the immaturity of egoistic humanity that cannot let go of war. The personal in this is powerful.

  4. What a life! Living through two WWs must have been a nightmare though. My grandparents also told stories.
    I know what he means with the carrots, I had my own in the garden for the first time this year. Nothing from a shop compares …

  5. Ah, the comfort of the ancestors, Brian. I have been communing quite a lot with mine (they seem to make more sense) – many cul-terreux among the lead miners, lace-makers, builders and cotton factory workers/owners. This is such a great portrait of your grandfather – so tactile the blue work jacket, and the unforgettable taste of a carrot straight from the soil. And the fact that the soil belonged to the railway! A spot of guerrilla gardening, methinks. Splendid all round.

    • LOL. It takes a Kingereza Memsahib to understand “cul-terreux”. 😉 Your French must be quite… comprehensive my dear Tish.
      Details, details, right? And you’re right, it must have been guerrilla gardening. My grandfather cut many corners…
      And I can imagine your own “ancêtres” on the other side of the Channel, living lives not so different. (If you find a good translation for “coutil” I’ll be grateful. Didn’t find anything to my liking).
      How was your summer? Scorching?
      Kwaheri sassa

      • Hello, Brian. I must admit to only guessing that cul-terreux was not a polite term for soil-toiling kind, but gathered too that quite a lot of my ancestors look to have fitted the bill, at least if the snotty recording of their poor employment conditions on official census forms is anything to go by.

        Coutil is a difficult one, but I know what the jackets were/are like, so I would say that in the UK we would call the fabric cotton canvas. It’s very densely woven, but washable and durable.

        As to summer – we had two quite hot days – upper 30s. As to the rest – it was pretty cool and lacklustre but v. short on rain, presently being rectified now that October has begun.

        Nice to have you back in blogland.

      • I always tell my daughters that the life they have is no luck, it’s just because all lour ancestors worked hard.
        Canvas, I heard. The important thing is that you “see” what it is. It’s probably illegal now, lasts too long. Would put clothes manufacturers out of business,
        Two days? oops. But good light still, I hope?
        Merci mon amie. It’s good to be back…

  6. In scrolling down to see where I left off in Reader one week ago, the first vintage picture piqued my interest and I had to stop and read this post first. While I don’t have such wonderful memories of my own grandfather, I have written at length about my grandmother. I remember how as a child I held onto her hand as we walked the length of her narrow garden, where she would cut off two generous stalks of rhubarb then wash them off with warm water and we’d dip them into sugar. Just a backyard garden, not a secret garden by the railroad tracks but nice memories like you have. I like the description of this still-dirty carrot in your grandfather’s calloused hand and your mother’s look looming large – we all got “the look” from our mothers growing up and it shaped us for years to come. I can picture the fabric of the cloth from your description and yes, removing one’s hat when stepping inside to be respectful is long gone isn’t it? I remember in your interview with Yvette that you are compiling photos and stories of your family and I am sure this one will find its way into that category.

    • Rhubarb is interesting. My mother loved it. And planted some in our Normandy house. Never really fancied it myself…😉
      Mice memory for you though.
      The family photo archive is 90-95% complete. Still some stories to dig and write…
      Thanks for the visit and comment Linda.

  7. This was a most enjoyable read for me. I love learning how other people live and if it’s before my time, that’s even better. My dad also used to grow excellent vegetables. My mother’s father was a dairy farmer in England.

    • Dankie Robbie. Those are old times. I generally say that we have the memories of the people we have known. In my brother’s (and mine) case, our memory stretches back to the 1890’s… 😉
      Your grandfather? He must have loved the taste of warm, freshly drawn milk. (A health no-no today of course…)
      Some things are completely gone. My father’s mother, though totally “bourgeois” had chicken in her garden too. Your dad’s skills are becoming rare. (Though I know one blogger, Ark, in SA, who still grows his garden)
      Tot ziens

  8. A great story into even more history of your fascinating family. And, I bet you haven’t tasted a carrot as good as that one since?
    My father was a farmer also and could grow just about everything. Not a small feat, hailing from southern Italy and landing in Australia.
    It’s sad how these days, people don’t have the time or just can’t be bothered to grow any sort of fruit or vegetable. Everything is so readily available that why would be waste their time?
    Think I inherited some of my father’s farming DNA as I’ve been growing fruit and a couple of vegetables since returning to Australia.
    Terroni – made me laugh! 😉

    • That was the end of all carrots. Not one could ever match it… 😉
      So you are first generation Australian… No wonder your ties to Italy are so strong.
      Compliments on your growing a couple of things. We do have a few mini tomatoes growing in the country house. Pure chance. Some tomato sauce must have fallen in the bushes. LOL.
      Terroni. LOL indeed. You’re the only one who could pick it up. Though I have a coupla Italian friends but I haven’t seen them (or visited) in a while… 😉
      It is quite an insult in France in some Parisian circles. Me? I don’t care. I’m one of them “Culs-terreux”. LOL.

      • But it’s so true…homegrown carrots are so much more flavoursome than bought – same with most produce.
        Indeed, I am and only wish my father made it back to Calabria – he would have loved that. It’s funny, when you’re in Primary school, you try and be part of the groups but with an ethnic surname and Salami sandwiches, I was never going to blend in, and kids can be so cruel. Wonder where they get that from…

        It’s not until I lived in southern Italy that I really got where my father was coming from – think something clicked in my head, but by then it was too late as he passed away in 2005.
        Another derogatory term is “Tamari”, but that’s more for “Boguns”.
        The southerners call northers “polentoni”, but I could go on and on.

      • E bellisimo!. For me it fits right in with the other “Romance” languages I speak, between french Spanish and Portuguese. Which helps me understand. And invent. I don’t know the Italian word? I put a French or Spanish word with “salsa di pomodoro”. LOL.

      • A friend of my mother’s spoke 12 languages! (The wife of the Israeli ambassador). My mother was amazed. her friend said: “the hard part is the first half dozen. Then you build on the languages you know. Makes it easy…”
        (I only got close to the half dozen… LOL)

      • All a matter of time. After a while, it’s like you have switches in your head. Switch from Spanish to Portuguese. English to French. Now the closer the language, the more difficult. Spanish and Portuguese are very close. One has to focus more…
        (Hell, I love languages, so if it means concentrating a bit, it’s a fair price to pay… Don’t you love your Bahasa?)

  9. Pingback: A carrot by the railroad – Nelsapy

    • At least I know a few things. Not so much on my mother’s side though. My grandfather was her dad. I plan to mail the ministry of Defence and see if I can get his military record.
      Bonne semaine à toi aussi

  10. What a wonderful story. Grandparents are one of the finer luxuries of life–especially those willing to let their grandchildren eat dirt.

    During WWI, one of my grandfathers was an American ambulance driver, stationed in Saint-Nazaire. The other (of German descent) was a conscientious objector and thrown in solitary confinement in an effort to dissuade him of his convictions. He eventually served but behind a desk in Washington DC. Like your grandfather, he wore what we referred to as his Mao suit every day except Sunday–dark green pants and matching shirt, both cut from the same heavy cloth.

    It’s great to travel back to a simpler time with you. Thanks for the written tableau.

    • Images stay with us. Details… It’s what makes memory before it turns into history.
      An ambulance driver… Wasn’t Hemingway one too?
      Thanks for visiting the “tableau”. 🙏🏻

  11. Quel magnifique recit, quel talent tu as, j’adore cette histoire. Quelles memoires chaleureuses et merveilleuses, merci pour ce magnifique voyage dans le temps !

    et effectivement, ce passage sur les carottes c’est tout à fait ça 🙂 je te le dis meme en secret, on croyait qu’il avait une plante malade avec des “boules trop bizarres et surement dangereuses” dixit mon fils. Et d’apprendre que c’est sous cette forme etrange que poussent les choux de Bruxelles (“ben tu vois, ca m’étonne meme pas ils sont mauvais Et moches” conclut le petit gastronome (point de vue que je ne partage pas forcement mais c’est un autre debat).

    • Merci Stéphanie. Je m’amuse. Mon grand-père serait content de savoir de cette histoire. (Qu’il ne pourrait lire, ne parlant pas Anglais)
      Mais ton fils a raison. Y’a des tas de trucs bizarres dans les jardins potagers…
      J’ai vu que tu avais fait un nouveau post… Si j’arrive à nettoyer mon mail petit à petit, je le lirai. (Et tu as aussi envoyé un mail… C’est sur ma liste)

      • Oh prend tout ton temps! en attendant on va mettre des pieges anti frelon asiatiques et chenilles processionaires (et moi j economise pour un appart à la ville, tellement plus secure!!!)

      • Le lierre est une cochonnerie. On avait bcp à la campagne. Ça attaque les murs aussi. On avait tout coupé. Mais il faut mettre des gants, un masque, et des lunettes. Assez irritant. Les joies de la campagne…

      • Haha! Attention au dos. Quand on a retapé notre maison en Normandie, on a fait bcp de ciment. Mon frère aîné s’est collé un tour de rein à monter le béton d’un étage…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s