Family Roots

I woke inside a frozen tent. I had curled myself into a ball during the night while wearing almost everything I owned. As I poked the stiff sides of the tent, I knew it was time to move on.

Three days before I had said goodbye to my female travel companion. I use that term because we were not just friends, but she wasn’t quite a girlfriend either. A tempestuous, but passionate journey around Spain had come to an end and now here I was shivering alone on this frigid morning in the hills north of Barcelona.

As the warm coffee breathed some resemblance of life into me, I plotted my journey north. I path that would eventually lead across the English channel and home for the build up to Christmas.

The length of France lay between my home and frozen tent, and by an odd quirk the small cemetery where my grandfather and grandmother’s ashes are kept lay on the just off the route. I had never been to the area, let alone the cemetery, but for some reason it felt like I should go.

The sun was dipping low as I neared Arech. I had hoped to visit quickly then move on to a town and hopefully a warm bed, but as I meandered through the French countryside moving further and further away from civilization I knew the chances of finding a hotel close by were becoming slim.

My GPS began dancing excitedly, I was close. A church appeared in front of me, alone except for a small house next door with a dim light somewhere within it. I parked in front and immediately began to feel nervous. Visiting a cemetery at sunset with the over active imagination spawned by an intense horror movie phase as child left me questioning my decision.

I had been told to look for two large cypress trees, and I saw them immediately. The fear was replaced by an emotion I still can’t quite place. Perhaps a little sadness, some melancholy and peculiar feeling that comes with visiting ancestral lands. Places you have never been to, but run in your blood nonetheless.

I approached the two cypress trees and stood before the small plaques placed by the trunks. For the briefest of moments I wondered if the names might be different than what I was expecting. Maybe these were the wrong trees? They were not. At my feet were three names. My grandfather, my grandmother and my uncle who had died as child. I stood staring numbly at them, as if not quite real.

Having been born in England to a French mother there was always a degree of disconnection with my mother’s family and my appalling French hadn’t helped. But despite this I had always felt fiercely proud of my French heritage.

The light was almost gone now, an I sat in the car wondering what to do next. I decided to simply sleep in the car and make an early start in the morning. Sleeping next to the cemetery felt creepy so I backed the car out of the small car park and gingerly drove on, hoping to find a small entrance into one of the fields that lay all around me. Luckily I found one immediately and brought the car to a stop in a small clearing.

I had earlier bought a baguette and some cheese and now devoured it all greedily before settling down in my sleeping bag with a book. Trying to sleep in a rural location such as this, you are surrounded by both an eerie quietness and the delicate sounds of nature. Twigs snap, leaves rustle and the wind purrs gently. I woke with a start numerous times during the night, my eyes flickering around the windows, half expecting a face to appear next to one of them.

But each time my mind returned to where I was. In a strange way it was comforting to know the cemetery lay close by. Perhaps subconsciously to ease the situation my mind would flicker back to memories of my grandparents. My grandfather taking me to museums in Paris, my grandmother patiently helping me to build a small wooden boat. These memories calmed the mind and eventually I would fall asleep once more.

For what felt like the hundredth time my eyes opened. But this time the sun had appeared. Lying low across the fields and glimpsed through the the bare winter trees. A warm ball of orange in a sea of frozen blue mist hanging thick all around me. It was an exquisite sight and lifted my spirits.

Maneuvering the car out of the clearing and back onto the road, I glanced for one last time at the cemetery, the warm glow of sunrise creeping towards the cypress trees. Thoughts from the previous night began rushing back, but I pushed them to one side. The car sped up and the cemetery disappeared behind me. I was going home.

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