These past days this last week have twisted and turned according to the elastic bonds of family. This morning I rode out of Milly-sur-Foret and the Fontainebleau Forests with a level of lightness and joy gained in no small part through renewed connection to family. I was no longer a solo soul adrift.
Backtrack to four days ago. My search of the cemeteries of Blois and beyond yielded no clues. Just weathered and worn opulence in stone. And, in metal, that familiar emaciated figure, ribs always exposed, pinned to crosses that lay about everywhere. Clearly both Catholic graveyards there in Blois. No Le Rouxs, Protestants, to be seen.
But no matter. I had bigger clues to follow. I had a record of birth. (Or of baptism, which in those times was the same thing.) “Those times” being Sunday 28th of July 1669. The register in the town’s book of births and deaths read [translated from French]: “Gabriel Le Roux son of Pierre Le Roux and of Anne Bourdon was born on the 25th of this month at three o’clock after midday and was presented to be christened by…his godfather and godmother…”
Stop right there! Do you hear what I’m saying? I held that old registry book in my hands! I touched with my fingers the old paper and its ink scrawls.
With no help from the Tourism Office – who had assured me with confidence that there were no publicly viewable records dating to that time – but with great help from Google Maps, I’d found the provincial archives office, walked in with trepidation, surprised myself with my ability to haul out sufficient French to explain my situation to the guy at reception, and 15 minutes later was sitting in front of the original, handwritten record book. Not at all unlike the ones in use in Laos today. What a feeling that was! What a grin on my face as I caressed those pages.
Plus, the helpful Alexis Durand, administrative assistant par excellence, had an article, published just last month in Australia by the Huguenot Association, that gave more information on the two Le Rouxs who made it to South Africa. My timing could not have been better.
Jean Le Roux, it turned out, had been born on the farm Pommegorge, just outside the village of Mer, about 25km from Blois. When his mother died, the parents of Gabriel Le Roux, whose birth registry I had in my hands, had moved to Pommegorge and all had lived together as one big happy family.
Gabriel was actually Jean’s uncle, but they were only a few years apart, and grew up as cousins until Gabriel’s dad died and his mom married Jean’s father. Now they were step-brothers. But no matter: they already called themselves brothers.
These were the “brothers” who fled together to the Netherlands as refugees when neither was yet 20 years old. Protestants at the time were not allowed to practice their professions or their religion, or sell their possessions. They had to go to Catholic Mass and get married in the Catholic Church. They were allowed to leave the country, but only if they took nothing with them. Which is exactly what the two young men did, finding themselves in Delft in the Netherlands by June of 1687, and on New Year’s Eve of that same year on the Voorschoten as it threw off its moorings to sail for the Cape, where it would make landing in Saldanha Bay (about a two-hour drive from Cape Town today) three-and-a-half months later on April 13, 1688.
Gabriel and Jean were granted land in what would become South Africa’s winelands. Jean named his farm Paris, married a French woman named Jeanne in 1703 and they had four kids. Gabriel named his farm La Concorde. In 1701 he also married a French woman and they had five children before both brothers drowned together in August 1711.
Three hundred and five years later, on a cold and cloudy day last week, I followed the voice of trusty Google Maps to Pommegorge. Not only was there a name sign outside, but when I buzzed, there was somebody to let me in the gate and to slowly shuffle out to welcome me. I told the old man my name and stuttered about why I had come. But my name was enough. The octogenarian owner, Andre Duche, walks slowly but gets highly animated when discussing the history of his farm, and was delighted to lead me to the very house my ancestors grew up in. A raggedy old barn now, it still shows all the markings of its two-floors-plus-an-attic original state. Andre Duche discretely stepped away and let me just stand there for a time. Stand and absorb. The space. The details. My history. I stood on the earth that birthed those who would eventually birth me.
And though, from one perspective, it was all very natural. From another, I felt… dare I say it… grounded. Rooted.
No, I am not French. Not European (with all the Apartheid-era nuances of that word.) I am African. But, at last, I have a heritage. I can trace one strand of my people back to a real place and time. I have stood where they stood. Now I can walk/trip/dance forward.
With that little victory just begging to be shared with more Le Rouxs, it was easy to make the call midway through a day’s ride to change direction and head to the little French village to the north that my brother and his family were visiting, rather than heading south-east as I’d originally planned. A few days with Douard and Emma and Ollie, a few South African braai barbecues, laugh-out-loud table tennis with a four-year-old, French baguette-and-cheese lunches in the courtyard, late-into-the-night chats, and hours of rewarding work on Douard’s business website, and I was plugged back into the grid again. Connected.
So much so that, this afternoon, when I went over a bump on the riverside path I was riding, and iTunes on my phone bizarrely switched itself on and Diana Krall randomly started belting out I love being here with you, my overwhelming feeling was “YES!”
In all the last three months, to the very day, those words would have elicited rather more gloomy feelings. But today, you was me. I was at peace with the world. Riding solo but without a touch of loneliness, I sang along to this and all Krall’s jazz standards as me, my bike and I wended along the winding river that will suggest our route in the coming days.