(A memoir piece from when we lived in France)
“He’s 94 years old,” interrupts my neighbour, in a voice tinged with reprimand. Perhaps because we are talking and laughing too loudly, not listening to the old man’s song. The singer does not look terribly ancient; the face is not very lined, a little hollow-cheeked, emphasising the hooked, long nose. The Mayor has placed a chair so that the old man can sit as he sings – in honesty, very hoarsely – into the microphone.
I danced with him once a couple of years ago. He sought me out as one of the English, something of a novelty to him, a handful of us dotted about among the crowd of 300 French. I had felt a fool, obliged to initiate the dancing with him, but he led me very gently around the space between the long tables and the stage.
“You must talk as well,” he told me. So I had struggled with my conversational French, against his heavy patois accent, trying to follow his lead in the dancing, whilst everyone looked on.
Today we are about at the mid-point of this year’s celebratory meal specifically for the ‘elders’, the seniors of the village. Bastille Day. The 14th of July and a national holiday. Everyone in the whole commune, families, children, will gather later for the fireworks, in the dark and welcome coolness of the evening.
The room looked beautiful when we arrived for our elaborate lunch; each place-setting precisely bordered by a row of four glasses for all the different wines. The yellow, budding flowers scattered to decorate the middle of the long tables, nestled amongst the alternated, white and red, thick, cloth napkins.
Between courses, we were entertained by a group of dancers and musicians; the musical instruments as traditional as the heavy costumes. The black boots, beards and shallow-brimmed hats of the men, the dense white stockings and modest head-scarves of the women, dressed in their dun coloured skirts of brown and beige, reminded us of an Amish settlement in America. Although surely the Amish do not dance?
There is a pause as the Mayor encourages one musician to explain and demonstrate what, to us, appear to be bagpipes. They sing too, this ‘folklore’ group; snatches of courtship songs, as they weave around each other, joining hands and sweeping forwards in complicated circular patterns, rapping their heels on the wooden floor to the rhythmic clapping of the audience.
There is another interruption as one of the folk group steps to the front of the stage and recounts a tale in patois. I am immediately reminded that my closest neighbours, Germaine and Louis, who are not present today, told me that they did not learn to speak proper French until they went to school. At the table, Madame G translates the story from patois into French for me and I, in turn, translate it into English. It is an amusing tale, but no doubt loses much in the double translation.
‘A poor young man leaves his family to find work, with his possessions wrapped in a handkerchief tied to a stick on his shoulder. On his return, at the end of the week, his family ask him what he did on the farm, which is not a prosperous one. He does not answer. He tells them nothing – from week to week.
At the end of the third week, he finally replies: “The first week the goat died. We salted it and ate it. The second week the pig died. We salted it and ate it. The third week the grandmother died. As she was inside the house, I could not go in.’
What happened to grandmother then, is the unspoken question, greeted with much laughter? It is an earthy, macabre story, set in the isolated, small-farming countryside of this region, and it is a reminder of status too; the field labourer who could not enter the house of his employers.
The hall is very warm. The clash of various perfumes – as all the women are dressed in their best today – mixes with the aromas of vegetable soup and fish, guinea fowl and mushrooms – we are only half-way through all the courses – fruity red wine and crusty, crumbled bread. Cheeks begin to flush, voices are raised, echoing to the vaulted roof, animated broad gestures accompanying much of what is said, as glasses are raised in continuous salutation.
The Mayor’s speech is long and fast-paced. Perhaps he wants to get it over with? He tells us that this village is fortunate in the present economic climate; we still have our two factories making corrugated cardboard boxes. I visualise fleetingly all those lorries packed with goods in cardboard boxes travelling along the Route Nationale : north to Paris and south to Spain.
The Mayor tells us that this village is maintaining its employment levels. Much of the budget has been spent, for several years, on the village school: computers, a crêche, but pupil numbers are dropping and we could lose a teacher.
Questions are raised about traffic and the bypass which is already under way and will benefit the nearest town, but how will it affect our village? I cannot follow all of his speech, but I know he is on the defensive.
The last Mayoral election, only a year ago, was shambolic. The Mayor had been in office for many years, his single opponent decided to challenged him, some say had already traduced him, with accusations of corruption.
Our letter-boxes, perched on top of walls, nestling on metal stands in the middle of thick hedges – always at the correct level for ease of delivery by the post woman – were assaulted daily with photocopied sheets of paper, in garish coloured text, prepared by the Mayor’s opponent and detailing the Mayor’s ‘crimes’.
It went to court, as a number of these local elections often do, and the Mayor had to pay for his defence out of his own pocket. He finally emerged triumphant, but not before his opponent’s claims that a ‘bribe’ of ten loads of fine topsoil, delivered free of charge to certain inhabitants in our village, had been upheld by the court. Re-elections were ordered, but the Mayor retained his post, with an increased margin. His opponent, shocked and battered, thereafter kept a low profile.
There is not much dancing today as we switch from live to recorded music: the traditional, accordion tunes. The oldest man, the 94 year-old, has expended all his energy in the singing, and remains seated at his table. Some women dance together, laughingly; widowed but still wanting to dance. A few couples make their customary appearance on the floor, rotating slowly and seriously.
The pink-flowered pot plants which stand at the base of the stage, neatly lined up, begin to be distributed to the tables. Every lady here will be given her plant to take away as a souvenir.
We say farewell to the Mayor and offer our thanks, remark on the deliciousness of the meal with all its many courses. He is hot, still dressed very formally, and drops of perspiration bead on his forehead. One of us asks, jokingly, why he did not sing, too? He tells us that he cannot sing, nor dance, but he can govern our Commune, our village. We agree that his governance is surely enough.
People are gathered in the car park, which lies to one side of the Salle de Fêtes; the village hall, the room for celebrations, festivals, parties. They prolong their goodbyes in the blaze of the late afternoon sunshine. We gaze out over the football pitch and its unimpressive, functional clubhouse building; probably containing only toilets and showers. The team is popular and crowds surround the grounds on a Saturday afternoon. Just the same as in England, we think.
Beyond the car park is the river, a narrow tributary, at a very low ebb but then, the inland man-made lakes where we bathe throughout the summer are also at a low level. By the Autumn, the lakes will be almost dry: merely large puddles in the deep hollows, rimmed with wide expanses of cracked mud. This is a drought area.
We are almost the last to leave, we British, clinging together now, where before we had intermingled and drawn on our knowledge of the language to our utmost. It is appreciated. Flushed and cheered by the alcohol, we know that we have impressed with our eagerness, our desire to fully take part in all the conviviality engendered by those few hours, spent collectively, at a special feast on a national holiday. And, there are still the fireworks to looks forward to!