Sardine Cans in the Dirt

French Alps

The French Alps. Spring 1977. Four young girls aged from three to seven are digging in the dirt for empty sardine cans. The days have been getting warmer and the snow has almost completely thawed, revealing the treasures beneath. The girls dig with their hands, and with sticks. The ground is cold but they barely notice. They collect anything interesting that they find, but what they are really looking for is old empty sardine cans. There is no greater treasure to be found here. Sardine cans are vessels in which to make perfume from the fresh fragrant mountain leaves which they will collect later. Sardine cans are for storing collected pretty stones which they know are precious fairy gems. Sardine cans are plates and cooking pans for use in the many camps they will build over the summer. Sardine cans are houses or baths for any little insect friends that may be found. Sardine cans are beds for the dolls they will make out of grass.

Today’s excavation yields three cans. A good haul. Before they can be used though, they need to be carefully cleaned. The girls use a stick to scrape out the dirt from inside and then take them to the spring to wash them. The water from the spring is freezing cold and their hands quickly turn red and numb, but they won’t stop until the cans are as clean as they can be. One of the girls gets a little cut from the can while rubbing it under the water. A drop of blood. Nothing serious. When the cans are clean they are left out to dry. Soon they will join other cans, along with pieces of broken plates and glass, ready to fire the imaginations of four young girls on their mountain home.

One of those girls was me, and that was a little glimpse into the year I spent living in an abandoned village in the French Alps with my mother and another family. No electricity. No plumbing. Nobody else but us. The other village homes were empty. Everyone else gone. We grew, or reared, or found, our food. We didn’t really have any toys. But we had a mountain, our imaginations, and sardine cans in the dirt.

photo credit: WouterKvG via photopin cc

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90 responses to “Sardine Cans in the Dirt

  1. I could really picture myself there, I really enjoyed this Vanessa! 🙂

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  2. What a cool memory. I could relate well to this, because I can remember being a kid and what my treasures were. Little containers were priceless to store treasures like colorful stones found at Grandma’s and cheap costume jewelry my mom got rid of.

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  3. Dang but this is good… is it to be continued.??

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  4. Tell me you will be writing more about this subject.

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  5. You mean you had little metal boxes that didn’t contain movies or music or apps and yet you still had fun??
    Lovely memories!

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  6. Need more. HF

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  7. How amazingly beautiful that must have been! Well, everything except the smell of a sardine can. 😉

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    • Unfortunately I don’t think I properly appreciated the beauty at the time! Kids don’t generally don’t, do they. Those sardine cans were pretty old, I think the smell was long gone, I certainly don’t remember them having a smell anyway!

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  8. Very appealing! Definitely stuff for making a story! But being the pessimist that I am, I was afraid you were going to say that the little girl who cut her finger was going to get a bad infection from the rusty old can and nearly die from it! That’s my perverted way of looking at things, I guess! LOL

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    • It is a good story. I enjoyed writing this little bit, and I seem to be getting good feedback here, so may well write more. I did actually wonder if people might think there was more significance to the cut finger than there was! I just remember that things like that were no big deal to us, that’s why I included it.

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  9. Very nice. Enjoyed it! Sounds like the beginning of a story.

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  10. I agree with your other commenters, Vanessa–MORE! How gorgeous! I want to know more about why the village was abandoned, why you were there, who the girls were (other than you, of course) and why you left. Ahhhhhh! MORE! ; )

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  11. Yes, we definitely need more. How intriguing. Why were you there? You kids didn’t mind the no electricity and no plumbing? You were living primitively. It must have been so cold in the winter! So glad you had friends to play with. More! More!

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  12. This piece really gets my imagination going. This is a great story. I love the idea of an abandoned village in the Swiss Alps.

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  13. This is so adorable, Vanessa. I believe kids are more imaginative the less toys (apps—oops) and distractions they have.

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  14. Ah, very relaxing, Vanessa – and very fresh too!

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  15. I loved how you captured the imagination of those little girls – a sardine can is so many things to little girls who play and play is learning

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  16. Great storytelling. Like the others have said. Need MORE 🙂

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  17. They eat a lot of sardines in the alps? Who knew?

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  18. Amazing what kids and their imagination can come up with. Lovely post.

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  19. Kids don’t get to use their imaginations anymore. Nor do they get to wash things in streams or handle any object which might cut them. Their loss – our loss.

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  20. What a neat story! So unique, but at the same time so easy to relate to. Awesome!

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  21. I’ve been reading today, many, many memories of wonderful times as a family (everywhere I turn there is another, it must mean something right?) and I have to admit I’m feeling envy and sadness, but happiness for you though, that you have this marvellous moment in your mind. Thank you for sharing it.

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  22. This is amazing, Vanessa. What a unique memory to have. Not everyone can say they roughed it in the French Alps. Did you get enough to eat? Maybe as a kid, that’s not the most important thing on your mind. I loved this.

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  23. the tone of this piece grabbed me more than any other of your writings Vanessa. It felt poingnant and a little sad, or is it nostalgia? xx

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    • Thanks Linda. Poignancy, nostalgia, sadness, they’re all very linked aren’t they. We feel sad when we look back at happy times just because they have passed. Looking back can be both painful and therapeutic can’t it xx

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      • Indeed, so true! Do write more on this – it evokes an understanding of how another feels and allows us, the reader, to empathise and experience another’s perspective. Good writing allows us to grow through another’s experience – lovely. x

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  24. Very well written as the images of that memory of so many years ago must be vivid in your mind. Interesting how children have the ability to still be kids no matter how little they have. Touching too … and I hope there is more to some.

    Thanks for pointing me this way, otherwise, given my current schedule I may not have seen this.

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  25. Do you know what I thought when I started this piece? ‘Hey, she’s started right in the middle of the action – nice one!!’ I got lured in to this piece. It also made me realise how much imagination was really being fired up. When you mentioned the blood I thought: oh god, one of these girls is going to die of blood poisoning…
    What an awesome experience for you to have had.

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    • Yep, I totally made a point to blatantly emulate what you do in terms of starting in the middle of the action, I wondered if you would pick up on that! Ordinarily, I might have started this piece off with “When I was a child I spent a year living in the French Alps, blah blah…” which I think would have been much less engaging! You’ve taught me well 😉

      I wanted to mention the cut just to show that this was part of what happened all the time, and was no big deal, but maybe it wasn’t a good idea because it may have led people to think that there was more drama to the story than there was!

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      • This came up in my writing group yesterday as well – with one of my pieces. There’s an image of some ducks copulating, and all the ducklings following them around, getting in the way. Everyone in the group took something different from the image. In my case, I wasn’t 100% clear what I was trying to say, but after we’d talked about it, then I was. But in your case, you know what you’re saying. All you have to do is now be aware that you’ve made a signal with that image. The ‘nothing serious’ is her point of view and you need to let the reader know that they can trust that. I thought – this is a child thinking that it’s going to be okay, when it’s not. All you’d have to do is show that this has happened before, then we know she is thinking nothing serious, not because she doesn’t know that even small cuts can go bad, but because she’s had a dozen that just healed up and went away. I totally think it was a good idea putting it in. These details are what make a piece enticing – they are the ‘show’ and allow a reader to feel they are witnessing things rather than being told about them.

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  26. Incredibe post, my friend!
    Thank you for sharing your incedible past.

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  27. Wonderful tale, Vanessa. I could feel that cold water, hear the sound of digging in the dirt, and picture the little girls. I know many commenters are begging to read more–me too!

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  28. Lovely memoir moment, Vanessa. The details are so simple and childlike, yet so vivid, especially the feel of the cold and the drop of blood.

    I hope Kate’s right, and that you decide to share more!

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  29. Yes, more please! You are a wonderful story teller!

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  30. I think it is interesting and actual inspiring how we tend to pour on the coals in creativity when faced with times of difficulty or challenge. Perhaps that is why I enjoyed camping so much…all the conveniences gone, natural instincts coming back.

    I think our society could lose some of it’s possessions so they can get back to basics…and create.

    Great story…thanks for sharing!

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  31. Aw to be young again! Love this story Vanessa, very sweet! 🙂

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  32. Pingback: When Your Greatest Treat is Butter | Vanessa-Jane Chapman

  33. An abandoned French village? Oh, you NEED to tell more of your story, Vanessa. I had a lot of fun picturing little girls foraging for sardine cans and precious “gems”, but this is just a teaser. More!

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  34. Wow. How does one just happen upon an abandoned village and go live there?? What a great experience.

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    • Well the family we were living with were from there anyway, I think they had left the village like everyone else, and we met them somewhere else in France, and they decided to move back there and so we went with them. I’m a bit hazy about the detail because that’s just from memory, I keep saying to my mother that I need a big sit down talk with her to fill in all the bits I can’t remember!

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