‘Look, I’m still here’

Agnes Parodi was born one year before the First World War. Here, the 104-year-old holds a picture of her 22-year-old self. Lars Gotsch/swissinfo.ch

Lars Gotsch, swissinfo.ch

Agnès Parodi has lived in many places, but hardly ever in Switzerland. Having reached the respectable age of 104, she lives in Cannes, France, and life is anything but boring.

“And two months,” Parodi insists. “I am 104 years and two months, so I’m actually older than 104.” The old lady sees every extra day of her life as a special gift – a bonus, so to speak. “Each morning, when I wake up I say to myself: look, I’m still here.”

Parodi certainly does not want to waste her bonus days. She keeps very busy and the meeting with the Swiss journalist is just another item on her to-do list. She doesn’t even manage to keep to the arranged time of noon sharp. The only response the ringing doorbell gets is the hissing noise of the intercom, which gets lost in the chirping of the crickets on the hot Avenue des Coteaux. 

Parodi has lived in this housing estate on the outskirts of Cannes for more than 50 years. "My flat is in the tallest of the five apartment blocks. I am sure you will find it," she said confidently on the phone. Finding the flat was easy, but hunting down the occupant? “She is still out and about," says the caretaker downstairs.

Africa and love

After about 20 minutes, a tiny woman walks towards the block of flats. She is not using a cane or a walker and, though slow, she walks with determination. Could it be her? “Yes, of course it’s me,” the old lady assures me. "I am sorry for the delay but I had to run some errands in town." She asked me into her flat and told me that her friend was on her way.

One of Parodi’s many friends is joining us today. Originally from canton Ticino in Switzerland, she is a Swiss Abroad and is also in her advanced years, but still about 30 years Agnes’ junior. The two met in Dakar.

It was there, in Senegal, where Parodi finally became an expat Swiss. She moved to Dakar to get married in 1938. She had met her husband in France a year earlier when the English lord she had been working for as domestic help took her, his family, and indeed the whole household to the Côte d’Azur for a holiday.

A good-looking lad

The then 24-year-old spent her evenings off work dancing in Cannes. In a club, she met Justin Parodi, a Frenchman from Dakar who was on holidays in Cannes. She can’t quite put her finger on why she fell for him. "I don’t quite know what I liked so much about my husband. He was simply a good-looking lad," she says with a contagious laugh that fills the room. He was completely besotted with her, and she was flattered.

The holidays passed and they had to say goodbye, but not without exchanging addresses. They kept in touch and the good-looking lad urged her to visit him in Senegal. He was working as a bookkeeper in the French Colony.

Parodi was easily convinced. She quit her job with the lord and travelled to Dakar by sea. She stayed for three months and at the end of her holidays, Justin Parodi proposed to her. The two got married and lived in Senegal for 20 years. The only effect the Second World War had on them was that the food supplies were scarce. Her husband did not have to go to war as he had been rejected as unfit for the military due to a hearing problem.

A flat full of memories

In 1961, when Senegal achieved independence, the couple moved to Cannes, where they later bought their own apartment. As they were unable to have children, they were happy with a two-room apartment, where Parodi lives to this very day.

Agnes Parodi's life is now about her friends. Here, she displays a card for her 104th birthday. Lars Gotsch/swissinfo.ch

The flat reflects the life of a centenarian. Cards for her 100th, 101st, 102nd, 103rd and 104th birthdays decorate the sideboard; the walls are covered in photos and African art, and the two tables and every single chair in the living room are buried under piles of paper. "It’s not always this messy here," Parodi explains. "I recently cleared the basement and moved everything into the flat. Now I am sorting through things." Today, however, there is no time for this. She walks past the piles of paper and sits down on the sofa. Her Ticino girlfriend sits down next to her.

“I only regret that I did not become a chef.”

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Too nervous for the kitchen

One-hundred and four years ago, the world was a different place. Europe was ruled by emperors and empresses, and Switzerland was right in the middle of it like a democratic and neutral island. At the country’s right edge lies Altstätten in canton St Gallen, where Agnès Coray – her maiden name – spent her childhood. She was born on May 22, 1913 as the daughter of a cabinet-maker with seven siblings.

At the age of 15, she left home to attend home economics school. She later worked in various hotels until she took up her job with the English lord. “There is only one thing I regret,” she says. "I wanted to be a chef like my older sister." However, her father and sister talked her out of it. "Agnès, you would be far too nervous for this profession,” they warned her. “You handling a stove with fire would be far too dangerous."

Even today, 90 years later, it is still quite obvious what her father and sister meant by that. Parodi’s nervousness and restlessness can still be felt despite her 104 years of age. When telling her story, she jumps back and forth from memory to memory and every so often she gets up from the sofa to dig out a memento, or answer the phone.

Choosing your friends well

Her phone rings about every 15 minutes. It’s her friends, who want to have a chat or meet up. "Oui, beaucoup des amis.” Yes, she has a lot of friends, and she meets at least one friend per day. "You cannot choose your family, but you can choose your friends," she says. "And I have chosen my friends well." Her Ticino friend nods away on the sofa. "Agnes will never be lonely."

“You cannot choose your family, but you can choose your friends”

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She has always kept in touch with her family in Switzerland. However, during difficult times it was her friends who stood by her side.

The dark day

Her husband was wearing a black coat, Parodi remembers. He had left something in the car and crossed the road to fetch it. It was a cool autumn day on 15 October 1988. Parodi’s voice still trembles when she talks about that day. The driver later claimed that he was only going 35km/h. "This is a lie," she cries out. "Nobody gets thrown through the air when they get hit at 35km/h."

Justin Parodi died from the consequences of this accident. They would have celebrated their 50th golden wedding anniversary a few months later. After the death of her husband she decided against going back to Switzerland. Here in Cannes, she had her flat and her friends.

Travelling into old age

These were the friends with whom she started to travel around the world. She was almost 100 years old when she embarked on her last big trip to the Black Sea. The visit of such an old person was a highlight for the locals. "Everyone wanted to talk to me. They could hardly believe meeting someone who is 100 years old."

Parodi can no longer go on such big trips, but she still embarks on smaller excursions. "At the end of August, I’ll fly to Basel to attend the Congress for the Swiss Abroad, like every year." You can hear the pride in her voice when she mentions that she is the oldest member of this organisation.

Agnes Parodi has become a local personality. On her 100th birthday, the mayor of Cannes (left) congratulated her personally. Agnes Parodi/Privatbild

No time

"Well, I think there is only time for one more question," her friend from Ticino interrupts. "After all, Agnes has a lot of other things to do," she observes. The two were supposed to go out for dinner and they would have to get ready.

"Right. Ms Parodi, do you ever get bored?" After all, she has lived alone in this flat for almost thirty years. "No," Parodi replies and laughs. "I have no time to be bored."

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