Belfast Telegraph

Home Life Features

Paint slides from a landscape by Monet to the nightmare canvas of Munch's Scream

Author Liz Ryan did what so many of us dream of ... gave up her job and moved to beautiful and unspoilt rural Normandy. But this week her world was turned upside down when Islamic terrorists murdered a French priest celebrating Mass in a nearby town

Living the dream, it's called. Doing what I did 15 years ago; quitting the day job, selling up in Ireland and moving to lovely France, traditionally the country of choice for those in search of a tranquil, civilised lifestyle in beautiful surroundings, with a dash of wine and a platter of shellfish thrown in.

And, yes, I got all that, here in my tiny Normandy hamlet, which, on this sunny midsummer's morning, is foaming with hydrangeas, the cows knee-deep in clover, the picture postcard conjured to life as bees hum, parasols open, tablecloths billow and the aroma of merguez sausages begins to drift through the trees from barbecues starting to sizzle with lunch.

From one side of my house, I can see across the fields of poppies all the way down to the coast, where tourists cycle amid the sheep in the salt marshes, teach their children to swim and to shrimp in the sparkling shallows; from the other side, I can see the church's weathervane twinkling in the sun and hear its bell tolling on the hour.

Only now, in this terrible month of July 2016, for whom does it toll? Aghast after Tuesday's vicious jihadist slaughter of Abbe Jacques Hamel, barely an hour away in the sleepy town of Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray, that is what my neighbours and I are all wondering. Gazing horrified as the paint begins to slide from Monet's lovely landscape, we find ourselves confronting a terrifying, blood-spattered new canvas more akin to Munch's Scream, a nightmare into which our beautiful, beloved France has been plunged and from which it seems powerless to escape.

France, for me, has a very deep resonance. It's where we all went for hot summer nights and hot summer kisses; it's where we camped in hazy meadows croaking with cicadas, tasted that delicious champagne, au paired those insufferable toddlers, discovered oysters and Muscadet and Médoc, ski slopes and silk scarves and, over the years, gradually fell in love with a whole way of life, shimmering and so sweetly seductive.

Adel Kermiche did not adore it. The 19-year-old blasted his way into a little parish church last Tuesday and butchered the 86-year-old priest who was saying Mass there. Adel, according to his friends as they were later interviewed on television, had a massive chip on his shoulder and a huge hatred of France, a hatred so bitterly fermenting that even his own family had warned the authorities. "Here comes trouble," they said; "We know," the authorities replied, and tagged him.

And yet he still went out and slaughtered an innocent, much-loved, elderly man. "And just when it was getting over the shock of Nice barely a fortnight before", as one commentator idiotically observed.

France was not "getting over" the nightmare in Nice. France has not remotely begun to get over it, nor over the Bataclan atrocity, the Charlie Hebdo horror, the Magnanville murders. France is, in fact, barely beginning to absorb the sudden avalanche of attacks, the scale of it all.

But - albeit fatalistic by nature - it is starting to struggle out of its initial state of stunned speechlessness. It is no longer shrugging its shoulders, throwing up its hands and saying "oh dear, what can you do?" France, for the first time in the half-century I have known it, is aghast, almost incoherent with fright, morphing into a slowly simmering anger that is, inexorably, going to have tragic consequences.

"I feel it all the time now," says a local estate agent. "At first, it was just the British who started backing off, you could feel the Brexit build-up as long as two years ago. But now it's the Dutch, too, the Belgians, the Germans, all the people who used to buy those cute little holiday cottages. And here's something else; if a Muslim family moves into a street nowadays, property prices in that street drop instantly by 10 to 15%."

Which says a great deal in a country that falls over backwards to ensure its immigrants a level playing pitch, subsidies and grants galore, every possible fair chance. Not that all Muslims are immigrants; many are second if not third-generation, born here and furious with the thugs who are tarring them all with the one brush, much in the same way that ordinary, decent Irish people were damaged and embarrassed by IRA extremism in Britain back in the 1970s and 1980s.

An immigrant myself, I am occasionally asked whether I ever do, or ever would, consider returning to Ireland? And the answer is yes, of course, I occasionally have and probably will continue to wonder, because that's how life works for immigrants, even voluntary ones from popular, nearby European countries.

But the French love the Irish, they see us as friendly and fun, and from the moment I first arrived, I have been made warmly welcome here. I've been to weddings and funerals and baptisms, all the family events that bond people and forge those crucial social ties. I speak the language, listen to local radio and hear all the gossip.

I have great friends, go to dinner parties and host them, exchange the kisses, eat in the French way and live in the French rhythm. I'm very happily "integrated" and really only contemplate returning home (which I visit frequently, anyway) with a wry grin.

But here's the difference: henceforth, if I did decide to "come home", it wouldn't be because of homesickness. It would be because of fear. Not fear of what's to become of all us "immigrants", but fear of being in the wrong place at the wrong time on the day the next maniac lets rip with a hatchet, or Kalashnikov.

Fear of the danger that's now only down the road. That's what it's coming to for natives, immigrants and tourists alike, in this formerly serene, almost lazily peaceful country. Until now, I always felt safer in Normandy, quite frankly, than I did in Ireland, but since Tuesday not even our local church, school, supermarket, summer festival, now feels safe.

What can be done? So far, President Francois Hollande (or Flanby as he's known, after a brand of custard flan) has done little more than sigh and wring his hands, which is rapidly increasing the chance of soon ending up with president Le Pen, in which case the option of returning to Ireland might no longer even be voluntary.

"I am struggling," says Rouen's archbishop, Dominique Lebrun, "not to let myself be overcome by anger." Which is of course the other danger, that reactionary fascism is about to make life much tougher for immigrants and Muslims in particular.

Educational and sports facilities for French teenagers are excellent and one of my neighbours sadly remarked on Tuesday that "young Kermiche should have been out cycling or swimming or playing tennis on that lovely summer's morning".

Last winter, a week or two after the Bataclan massacre in Paris, I went to a local concert where, in the tiny theatre's lobby, all arrivals were frisked by a smiley, friendly girl, apparently recruited at short notice and so visibly inexperienced I almost laughed aloud.

"What would you do," I asked her, "if you found a gun under my coat?" "Ah," she laughed, "I'd chuck it on the pile along with all the others."

So yes, clearly France has a lot of security still to tighten. A key problem is the alleged lack of co-ordination between its various security agencies, and the complexity of this struck me yesterday when, after a swim at a very pretty beach up the road near Dieppe, I sat down at a snack bar to order a toasted sandwich and a glass of wine. The waitress flicked her biro in what appeared to be two directions at once.

"Snacks over there. Drinks over here."

Eh, oui. Customers were seriously expected to eat at one table and drink at another. Which brings home, with a bang, as it were, the enormous challenge of trying to synchronise six national security agencies.

Dearly as we all love our pretty, oh-so-paradoxical France, it is currently - as a friend of the slain priest put it - "in freefall". In freefall and frightened, and facing a huge, extremely urgent change in the way it has, up to now, so languidly lived. Should you still come and visit La Belle France, which so suddenly needs your love? Yes, if you're brave and want to put your money where your mouth is, but be prepared to see some very sad changes and avoid any venue, any event where a crowd is likely to gather.

My 15 years here have been wonderful, but would I buy a house here today? For myself, yes. Don't let the terrorists win. But if I had children, no. Children need a safe environment - and, if peaceful Normandy isn't safe, then no part of France is

Hopefully, that will change, but at the moment the "state of emergency" is ever more elastic, extending into and beyond the horizon of a summer that la belle France will, for all the wrong reasons, never forget.

Liz Ryan is the author of French Leave, published by Liberties Press

Belfast Telegraph


From Belfast Telegraph