A notary goes down the street loaded with a very long ladder. And it’s not a joke. The journalist does not yet know that he is a retired notary, but he approaches the gentleman on the ladder. Then the two talk in a church with a disturbing past. Thus begins a nostalgic day that revolves around what Châteaudun was, the city that votes (more or less) like the whole of France, what it could have been and what it is now. “Everyone, all the young people are leaving Châteaudun”, complains the notary.
Let’s solve the question of the ladder first. The notary, Pierre-André Lhomme, takes the staircase to the Madeleine church, the oldest and largest in the city, so that the upper part of the porch can be tidied up before Easter.
La Madeleine is an impressive church but its history of misfortunes does not advise climbing its walls. It was born as a Merovingian chapel in the 6th century. Successive enlargements showed that it stood on shaky ground. It collapsed twice during the 13th century. The choir and ambulatory collapsed in 1522. A pillar fell in 1692 on those attending a mass. In 1742 the bell tower was lost. The interior decoration was destroyed during the revolution of 1789. And in 1940 a German bombardment (exacerbated by the fact that someone had parked a fuel truck next to the door) razed the temple again.
The notary, Catholic, and the journalist sit in front of the altar. “I was born in Étampes, halfway between Paris and Châteaudun, in 1948. My parents were farmers. I arrived in this city in 1983, with my notary diploma. I stayed here and my four children were born here. One married a notary, another is a nurse, another is a lawyer, and the fourth became a monk. Everyone left. Unfortunately, Châteaudun stopped offering opportunities long ago. All, all the young people are leaving.”
The arguments that the notary reels off would be valid for any empty or emptied city in Spain. The high-speed train that passes 20 kilometers away but does not stop, the railway to Paris that is still not electrified, the progressive disappearance of local industry, the closure of shops due to competition from a handful of large supermarkets installed several kilometers away, the youth that is leaving…
When the young notary Lhomme arrived in Châteaudun, the population was 18,000. The city was growing and it was taken for granted —because that was what the Paris authorities calculated— that in a few years it would reach 25,000, but today there are barely 13,000. The arms industry and the military barracks formed the economic axis of the city. “It was a big mistake to dismantle all that, the country must be able to defend itself and now, with the threat from Russia, we see it,” he explains. “We felt ensconced in perpetual stability, eternal peace and progress, and we made a lot of wrong decisions,” he adds.
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Posts to rummage in the past, the nursing home Léo Lagrange (almost adjoining the cemetery, but very clean and tidy) stores a lot of memories. Madame Lauy, who has only been in residence for two months, arrived at Châteaudun in 1956, “when there was a market every day, and not just on Thursdays like now”. Madame Bezaet — “already seven years as a client of this house” — complains that there used to be six shoe stores, of which only one remains. “And the clothes? I can’t buy clothes anymore! You have to go to those big shops that are far away, on the road, and how do I get there?” exclaims Madame Hadder.
The group of old ladies start a conversation about how lively life was and the atmosphere on Saturday nights in the various dance halls. “Everything was spoiled from 1968”, ditch Madame Bezaet, “since 1968 this has not raised its head”.
They adamantly refuse to talk about politics; one, because he is not interested; the other two, “because we would end up angry”. It has been to mention the presidential elections and become silent, although immediately afterwards they expand on the elections the following day, in which the “governing council” of the residence will be elected (with positions for several inmates), and they discuss their preferences. They don’t talk about politics and they don’t want photos. “To have come before, young man. 40 years ago, for example.
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