She who roams by the cemetery

I don't know whether the woman who roams by the cemetery is Romany, but she is very much lost.

I’ve spotted her a few times now. The first time I noticed her, she was in a strange position: not fully reclined but almost. She was contorted on a mouldy pavement bench. It’s opposite our complex. She’d wriggled herself into a peculiar position; it was as if her head was in complete disagreement with her neck. She turned to see which new shoppers might be over the road, leaving her shoulders low and depressed.

Her knees were bent, tucked into the crease of her waist. But then she stood up, her head parachuting the rest of her body into reluctant action. It’s fair to say her clothing was unmemorable – I was left with the impression she was reasonably well-dressed. She looked like the kind of woman who sits quietly at Parents-Teachers Association meetings, only speaking up when asked. Quite specific this, but I pictured her as the type who daydreams how her macaroons will turn out and knows the perfect recipe. And yet here she was, lying on a bench outside the cemetery, apparently just awakened.

She was carrying a purple suitcase and a large plastic bag. Even the tanned homeless man with the dog that I used to notice a few weeks ago gave her the cold shoulder when she approached Port Vendre’s very own Piccadilly Circus – metropolitan hub – Lidl, a franchise of the German supermarket.

This branch of Lidl is not that bad. It sells French delicacies: think foie gras and all that yucky stuff. I assume branches in Frankfurt and Freiburg aren’t as excitingly stocked. It’s one of a few incongruous features of this historic town. One of the others is how many homeless people see it as their base.

Lidl faces on to one of the entrances of the low-walled cemetery, the gates of which are always open. Lidl, meanwhile, closes every evening from Monday to Saturday. At 19h00. For a few hours beforehand, a rag-tag group of travellers mark the supermarket exit as their meeting point. There’s the aforementioned man with the dog, and a few other men with pinched faces that look like they’re being held together by clothes-hooks. That’s me being kind. But in all seriousness, where are they coming from, these Catalan gypsies? Where will they go?

I hear this region is one of France’s poorest. When we mentioned to some of M’s friends in Paris that we were here, most shrugged their shoulders, none-the-wiser. Far from the capital: ‘the other France.’ Perpignan is the nearest municipal centre. Toulouse and Montpellier are the closest major cities, but not that close.

There’s a sizeable traveller community here. The Catalan gypsies are said to have been in this part of France since at least the fifteenth century when they were permitted to travel from Spanish Roussillon. But across Catalonia as a whole, including Barcelona’s El Raval barrio, the Romany have lived here even longer than that, originating it is thought from northern India. They crossed the Pyrénées and made their way south, some of them ultimately heading for Andalusia.

That was then. Now there are 10,000 Romany in Spanish Catalunya, and I imagine a not insignificant number of Romany living in French Catalonia, where we’re now based. The New York Times and the Guardian to name just two print publications highlighted the recent travails of Perpignan’s gitano community as they resisted municipal efforts to demolish and rebuild the medieval Saint Jacques community. There’s much that can be written on the community but tales of poverty, unsanitary living conditions and unequal life chances are legion. Life expectancy for some of Perpignan’s gypsy community is just 47 years of age.

I don’t know whether the woman who roams by the cemetery is Romany, but she is very much lost. Last week, I jogged past her as she hesitantly tip-toed down the hill from Lidl to the high-arched bridge. Again, what she looked like didn’t matter. The best memory I can conjure up was that there was something purple about her. Maybe it was her purple carry-case I remembered. She looked like she was waiting for a bus, but when I jogged back, she’d changed her position and looked ever-so-awkward, not knowing where to place herself.

Yesterday she was outside our complex again, muttering to herself, and obsessively handling her plastic bag. Her purple carry-case was gone. She repeatedly placed her plastic bag in bushes opposite the cemetery entrance, removed it and then placed it back again. She then took a rug from the same thicket. She muttered something under her breath when she looked in my direction, but then looked away again, as if I wasn’t worth the trouble.

Her clothing was memorable this time – there was something quotidian about the zebra-patterned stripes of her marinière femme. She wouldn’t have looked out of place at the school gates, waiting to collect her kids so they could tuck into out-of-the-oven chocolate chip cookies. I can only surmise she’s homeless and has a memory loss, or some other neurological condition.

The man with the dog is long-gone. The police never stopped to move him on – at least not on those occasions I passed him and the police sat in their car nearby. I don’t know how they intend to help or manage this woman, but it’s definitely help she needs and not a fine or some form of punishment. I don’t know how far French charity extends, but there should be some sort of social safety net and it’s lacking here in Port Vendres.

That said, I admire the the spirit of the town. There’s the daily 20h00 knocking of kitchen utensils against casserole pots. You hear the jangling sounds from people’s kitchens and bedroom windows, although when I’m jogging in the late evening sunset and have my headphones on, I forget the daily ritual and mistake the sound for crickets in the grass.

One evening up by the bunkers, the whole town was animated by this sound of wood banging against glazed ceramic pots. Inspecting the remnants of a hold-out dynamited by the retreating Nazis, M and I were stood on the highest incline before you reach the dip of the port. The stillness of 19.59 soon gave way as we were orbited by the klaxon of French housewives and their husbands giving thanks to local doctors and nurses.

Yesterday, a few of the locals heartily promised another round of percussive sounds, possibly next time produced by cheese graters and not their rolling pins. ‘Á demain!’ they heartily bid farewell from their neighbouring terraces. At least I think the singing voices came from their windows, but by that time I was in the cemetery and the walls were high enough to hide the town and its jaunty residents.

Hearing all this cheer from inside the cemetery had a peculiar comic effect. I stepped past Jean Verrechia’s grave-stone, which is the first one on the left, and looked for the homeless woman who roams here. I don’t know why I entered, maybe to help?

The proximate cheers caused me to imagine it was the town’s buried dead exchanging pleasantries, not the living witnesses of the pandemic. I stepped inside a little more. The cheers and banging of pots grew even louder. There were muffled voices. Perhaps the homeless woman was in communion with the dead, reminding them she’d be back again tomorrow, this time with her purple case.

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