Monday, March 11, 2013

In Search of Dr Louis Gabriel

(Fontenay-le-Compte, sans Frittes)

Ingloriously free after fifty-five days of non-stop work, I am exhausted. Freed from driving duties, baggage handling, guiding, negotiating hotels, providing leadership for my pilgrim customers, I search for home comforts in a friendless French Vendee. Rather than walking into nothingness, into zombeedom, I set myself a final task- searching for the family history of my central character in Belonging, Dr Louis Gabriel.

I must have been mad, Bourdeaux was my recovery centre, staying at a much visited down market hotel near the railway station, all the facilities lovingly familiar and nearby, not least a laundry. If that didn’t satisfy, there was always energetic La Rochelle.

But after writing a ‘fictional biography’ of Dr Louis Gabriel, set in the 1890’s, this was unfinished business. A prequel? A requiem? Discovery after discovery, revelation after revelation, meant that so many loose ends remained. The Gabriel family came from France in the early-mid Nineteenth century, but no one knew their home town, a rare clue, the name of Louis Gabriel’s Gundagai home, called Fontenoy. 

'Belonging': a delicious serving of Australiana

How many Fontenays are there in France? First, the Battles of Fontenay, fought in 841 between Charlemaine’s inheritors. Unlikely. Next, the Battle of Fontenoy, fought in 11 May 1745,[1], a major engagement of the War of the Austrian Succession. Unlikely, as the Gabriels were African slaves, brought to the West Indies before being taken to Napoleonic France. 

Next, the Battle of Fontenay-le-Comte was fought on 25 May 1793 during the French Revolutionary Wars, between forces of the French Republic under General Chalbos and Royalist forces under Marquis de Lescure. The battle was fought near the town of Fontenay-le-Comte in Vendée, France, and ended in a Royalist victory. Pre Napoleon, but did involve the town of Fontenay le Compte.

There’s also the Abbey of Fontenay, and thirty locations in France with Fontenay, Fontanoy or Fontenai in its name! Ouch.

On the other hand, Louis Gabriel’s grandfather jumped ship in Australia in 1836?, after his month as ship’s doctor, the lowest level of medical practice, usually by the least trained and most desperate characters. These ships leave France on its Atlantic coast, Fontanoy le Compte, being fifty kilometres from La Rochelle’s port.

So it was more by hope than cold calculation that I fell upon Fontenay-le-Compte, the family stranded in France after Napoleon’s defeat. They and all the other former slaves had won their freedom and professional training as medicos, probably in Napoleon’s army, later dispersing throughout France, in pursuit of acceptance and a decent life for themselves and their families. The Black Jacobins, as they came to be known, had a strategy of staying in one town for their entire lives, believing longevity of residence and professional practices unknown before the revolution brought familiarity, dependence, repute and acceptance, at a time when a black skin carried with it suspicions, prejudices, difference and strangeness. 

The hearsay says the Gabriel family fell upon hard times, the son unable or unwilling to complete medical training. The 1830s were a time of economic depression (then, the 1890s, 1930s), the solution for the least favoured peoples was becoming a ship’s doctor: a high-seas medico a terrible, high-risk job. 

So if Louis Gabriel’s father was a ship’s doctor, Fontenay le Compte was possibly their home. 

Drive on.

What did I discover? From a quick drive in the late afternoon, Fontenoy has perhaps five thousand people, with a long main-street leading up to an ancient hill, probably once a fortification overlooking the Vendee’s expansive plains. It had seen better days, its shopping strip uninspiring on a wet, late autumn afternoon. 

Garry at a public reading of 'Belonging' in Balmain, Sydney

Night soon fell, like some drunken sailor. With nothing to do on a Saturday night, I was hungry, hungry for more than restaurants and eateries. Running on empty for manyhours: how long ago did I last eat? I had almost forgotten who I am, where I am from; even, where I was. There’s a place called home, an odd word, yet my finger pressed down on my emotional map- ‘here’, with a big cross. I needed to eat, to fill myself up with identity, to eat for the sake of my being. Every fibre of my worn and swooning body says ‘eat, consume, fill’. 

From the far side I see it- there it is: eatery lights flashing green and red, fluorescent dreams in a tiny three-metre booth, a brown and blue falafel roil illustration of spit-fired chicken, tabouli, tomato, onion, lettuce and tahini wrapped in glorious Lebanese bread. Served simple. It’s food, warm food, wholesome, homely food; food known and loved, food of grave familiarity.

I cross the wet and glistening road carelessly. Home sweet home- before me, a smiling man with a huge moustache.

-Un falafal roll. s’il vous plait. Poulet.
He smiles knowingly, slow to move.
-Avec sauce? 
Sure. Lots of it, I signal. 
Wonderful. Oh yum.
-Avec fittes (or chips)? 
Frittes? Hell no.

Journey-ridiculous ended in La Rochelle, no clues on Gabriel found, the chicken and falafel roll eaten, my folly making barely a dent in hope. 

C’est la vie. 

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