Following World War Two, my parents left France for Chad, built a hotel/restaurant in Abéché, to the northeast of the country, in close proximity to Sudan, the area was vibrant due to the presence of French armed forces. I was born there, I was the first French woman to be born in Abéché, back then things were tough and men would leave France to get there without their wives. There were wild animals there too; I have a photo of an eighteen-month old me standing next to a lion. There was this novel that my mom had, in which a girl named Patricia gets to hang out with wild animals; she was planning to name me after this heroine, but that never materialized as my brother’s name was Patricio. I was a tomboy, very frisky, and when I turned five, my parents sent me to my grandmother in Normandy where I stayed until I graduated elementary school. I was never into wearing shoes, I would scream every time my grandma tried to put them on me.
I got on with seventh grade in Chad; the locals would send girls to school, I was the sole girl among five hundred black boys. I met my husband when I was fourteen, he was French, a twenty-year old math teacher. My mom took him into her household, I had my first child when I was sixteen, but I didn’t drop out of school, everyone was being helpful, I didn’t have any issues. At recess, my mom would drop off the baby to school so I could breastfeed it. By the time I graduated school, I already had two children. We went to Morocco because my husband was about to get a job there. I was offered a French language teacher job at a boys technical high school, while I was simultaneously studying to be a teacher via mail; I took the certificate exam in Paris. We stayed in Morocco for five years, and when I got hold of my certificate, I found a job in an elementary school.
We then moved to France, Normandy, where I was out of work for a year, my husband and I hit some bumps, so I went back to my mother for two months to cool down. That’s when I met the man I’m still married to, Joel; I was twenty-five, the year was nineteen eighty. Joel worked as an agricultural engineer, something like an edible plants inspector. I told my husband everything, suggesting I had to leave; he replied: “If you walk out on me, I’ll die.” Joel told me: “You’re married, you have two children, hold on, and maybe we’re meant to meet again; abandoning your family now is going to end in a big disaster.”
The following years I worked in Ivory Coast, in France, in Tunisia, in Slovenia, and back to France once again, where I retired. It was Slovenia where I got married to Joel, in ninety ninety seven.
We purchased an RV and embarked on long journeys; South Morocco, Italy, twice in Syria, we toured across Turkey, we even made it to the Iranian borders. In two thousand eight, I brought my mother from Chad –she had lived there for sixty-five years–, and she got to spend some years near us in France. My father had gone to France much earlier.
In twenty fourteen, we bought this house in Chios. Joel wanted us to alternate between France and abroad every year, he first came to Greece when he was twenty years old. He wanted an island big enough, with a limited amount of tourists on it, that wouldn’t trade much with the Americans and the Chinese while being close to Turkey so that we could carry on traveling there. There is an oriental side in me, music and all this Arabic stuff fascinate me, it’s a culture I like. Chios would give us the chance to be close both to Europe and Asia. Joel found the house outside Lithi while browsing on-line, he liked it, both the mountains and the sea are within striking distance, so he bought it. My advice to him was “do as you will, I’m feeling comfortable practically everywhere, I don’t mind.” When I came to Chios, I took up Greek language courses for three months along with some Albanian immigrants who spoke much better Greek than me. The villagers are being very nice to us, we help each other. I would like to live in the village so as to be able to interact with people more. I take life as it is, I don’t look ahead to anything, I adapt to it, this is probably the key to happiness. We return to France once a year, we get to travel, and this is just enough.
When I went to Chad to pick up my mother, I hadn’t been there for forty years, I couldn’t help smelling the aromas, the food, the soil. There is this feeling when you are in Africa that you’re glued to the soil, you get to sit on the ground, people are calm, they’re poor yet they keep smiling and hoping for the best. They’re very faithful, they believe that life is just a crossing, there is another life following later. Chad is my homeland, but there’s the war, poverty, I don’t want to go there.
It didn’t take me long to meet amazing people in Chios, but what’s tricky here –not for me but for other foreigners– is that you need to be resilient, people change their minds all the time, our lesson begins at seven, but it might actually begin at seven thirty, or eight. Women in their fifties feel tired, they rarely carry out a project they’ve settled on, it’s like they lack the energy needed to see it through. Speaking Greek not that well also hinders me from interacting with the villagers. I’m planning to leave at some point, but that spark to discover the country is still burning, I keep reading about Greece and its history. If you told me to go and live in Japan, I wouldn’t hedge for a minute, I like getting to know something new, something different, I like languages a lot; if I had a second life, I would probably learn every single of them because that gives me the chance to uncover people’s personalities and mentalities, and this is something I like. Whenever we traveled, we would stay around for quite some time, talk to them, dine together. When we’re about to set out on a journey, Joel spends a lot of time preparing it well in advance, I don’t, then I get to write about it. It pleases me to stay here, I experience what needs to be experienced in a very intensive way. My current recounting is only a small part of the face you’re now looking at.
I met Chantal twice at Komi, where she talked me through her life, in early October two thousand nineteen. A few days later, I visited her at her place, at Lithi, so as to take some photos; that truly magnificent afternoon, the atmosphere was so clear that three or four islands were visible, prompting Joel to pick up a map and work out their identity for me. Flicking through her bookcase, Chantal managed to spot a book titled Le Lion, featuring a girl living with wild animals. On the plot and the balconies, one could see cats wandering about.
Translated into English by Nikos Loutraris