I was in the queue at Pali – the most downmarket of the local supermarkets – and indicated to a woman carrying only a pot of yogurt to pass ahead of me. Inevitably, the customer first in line at the checkout then had a meltdown with her credit card which I greeted with a mutter of
‘Putain de merde!’
Old habits die hard.
The woman with the yogurt turned to me smiling…
No and neither was she…but she had lived in France for many years, as had we: her husband had worked there as a plastic surgeon and on retirement they had returned to Costa Rica. They lived in San Jose but had come down to prepare their finca for the family gathering over Christmas and New Year.
We exchanged telephone numbers…we talked, we met again…we cooked together.
It was good to share memories of a country we had both lived in at the same time – though in different spheres: hers was Paris, mine La France Profonde.
But one thing we agreed upon…France is not as she is depicted in the tourist literature, nor as in the outpourings of the ‘living the dream’ brigade.
She can be a lot better than that – and a lot worse.
Slower way of life….try that when Madame Untel is elbowing her way past you at the charcuterie counter…
The wonderful fresh bread…stale in an hour…
Romantic villages….with dodgy drains…
The cultural life…wet tee shirt night at the local discotheque…
The cinq a sept …zut alors!
The other thing we agreed upon was that once adopted by a friendly neighbour doors opened wide on the real life of France, from helping out at the Secours Populaire or Catholique to joining the Troisieme Age (not for the faint hearted) on their outings; supporting the local organisations’ fund raising with their couscous or paella evenings; joining the historical society…the sewing bee…the cycling club…because there you would meet the people who really kept France on the rails with their sense of civic responsibility – and their sense of fun!
For me that was exemplified by the game of boules.
I used to know when spring had arrived, as the faint click of metal on metal could be heard from Jules’ yard as I passed while walking the dogs.
They were nothing loth to renew acquaintance with his old Breton spaniel and I was nothing loth to join Jules, his wife and a couple of neighbours in a few rounds of boules followed by a few rounds of drinks in his hospitable kitchen.
Playing and drinking were two separate activities, and probably as well while I was undergoing my apprenticeship in the fine art of boules on a dusty surface where you had to know where the dips were – only to find they had changed by the next time as the Breton spaniel had taken a dust bath on the piste.
It was not competitive, just a way to pass the early evening before locking up the barns for the night and settling down to supper and the television and that was the way I liked it.
As more British moved into the area, more learned the game and it seemed to take them two ways.
Some, like me, just liked the excuse for a natter with the neighbours while others became extremely competitive indeed and started running – British only and by invitation only – competitions…even building boules courts alongside their houses with much use of the spirit level to ensure British fair play.
They also called it petanque. Some of them even wore panama hats and white trousers on competition evenings. Some of them used to practice, too, which I thought completely unBritish.
So there was a sort of divide between the ‘casuals’ – boules – and the ‘professionals’ – petanque.
Then a chap with a holiday home, who enjoyed playing boules with his neighbour, had an idea of furthering integration with a ‘boules day’.
His idea was to invite his British friends while his neighbours invited their French friends, get scratch Anglo-French teams together on the day and have a jolly with a picnic.
All went swimmingly. Too swimmingly. The event began to outgrow his neighbour’s yard, and by the week before the due date, his neighbour approached the maire about using the salle de fetes, which had a huge car park, the idea being to mark it out for boules.
The maire was delighted and signed himself and friends up for the event.
The organiser was getting short of British. The casuals were all about signed up, including one lady with a zimmer frame, but the professionals were holding back…..it was all a bit, well…casual….and it wasn’t petanque.
The maire, a very nice old boy who must have descended from a long line of corkscrews so Machiavellian was his conduct of the commune’s affairs, had the answer.
As this was a sort of community event, a step towards integration, the commune would put on the wine for the picnic. Free. The press would be invited.
As he had divined, no professional ever spawned can refuse free drink and publicity.
The ranks of the British were reinforced overnight.
The maire had also offered the salle de fetes’ trestle tables and benches for the picnic and had persuaded the farmer with the field behind the car park to move his cattle off in time for the cow pats to dry out before the day, so that the picnic could be al fresco, rather than in the stifling air of the salle, which bore no small resemblance to the Black Hole of Calcutta during wedding receptions in the summer.
The organiser, by now relegated to sub organiser behind the maire, bethought him of food.
Since the French – well, the maire – had been so generous with the wine, perhaps the British should make sure that the picnic buffet tables were well replenished in the food line.
He and his wife undertook basic salads and levied contribution on the British participants for the rest.
I’d volunteered to help his wife with the salads, and as we transported the mounds of lettuce, cucumber and tomato, not to speak of beetroot, spring onions and radish, to the buffet area, it was clear that the tournament was going great guns.
The French and the British were mingling and playing amicably and, more surprisingly, so were the casuals and the professionals, but this could have been because the maire had decided that communication on a dry throat is never a good idea and had opened the casks early on in proceedings.
The British picnic contributions were arriving, and it was interesting to link contribution with contributor.
Some had been incredibly generous, plates of ham and charcuterie, cold roast chickens, huge bowls of mixed salads, cheeses…some had even sacrificed their emergency food parcels – pork pies and cooked, cold, British sausages! There were commercial and homemade chutneys and even bottles of salad cream with which to astonish the French.
Trifles, summer puddings, fruit salads, treacle tarts, chocolate mousses – we had to ask if we could use the fridge in the salle to keep them from spoiling.
Others, all straw hat and garden party dress, would deposit their offering of a small bowl of pasta salad – where the pasta element had beaten the other ingredients by a country mile – in pride of place in the centre of the buffet, smiling sweetly at those working behind the tables before turning sharply to the wine cask area and the serious business of the day, tracking down the press photographer.
The tournament had been a great success…I have no idea whch team won, if indeed any did…but then came the moment of truth as the crowd approached the buffet.
How would the French get on with the British idea of a picnic?
We had filled bottles from the casks and distributed them around the tables, but now it was every man for himself.
The maire plunged in and, reassured, his flock followed…..
The sausages and salad cream were the great successes….one lady had to go home to round up some more of the latter.
Chutneys intrigued, especially with pork pies, while the puddings roused the maire to send out for supplies of the local dessert wine straight from the cellars of one of the players.
Clearly, a success, and so it has proved down the years.
I moved away a long time ago, but friends in the area say it is still going strong although with more and more difficulty getting generous donations from the British element, it has for a few years’ now been a mechoui – a spit roast lamb – affair with a professional caterer and a small admission fee.
Still, it was a super idea, founded on the amiable idea of having a few friends round for a quiet game and a few drinks.
And that, to me, was boules.
I was wrong. There was a lot more to it than that.
In August, Madeleine’s cousin used to hold open house on Sundays for those who had not gone off for the holidays.
The wine was cooling in a bucket in the well, we would all bring something to eat and the afternoon would pass with a game of boules, gossiping in the shade or a quiet nap, depending on circumstances.
However, occasionally the mood would take the cousin to be up and doing and he had the entree everywhere…nowhere was a closed door to him, or not for long…he knew who held the keys.
I had been playing boules with the chaps when the cousin came upon us.
‘Let’s show her a real game!’
I thought he was going to take a part himself and up the standard, but it was nothing of the sort.
He disappeared into the house, then emerged, beaming,.
‘Everyone in the cars!’
We headed for the silent, baking town and into the alleys of the medieval quarter, where we drew up before an ancient building with an iron grill in the wooden door.
He shouted, the door was opened, and we found ourselves in a large, cool club room, where a number of elderly gentlemen were having a quiet drink.
There was a lot of joshing around, to the effect of what was he doing, bringing women in here….this was a men’s club…was nothing sacred?….but we were supplied with cold, dry white wine all the same and the cousin explained.
He had brought his friends to show the foreigner – me – how a proper game of boules was played.
La boule de fort.
His friend the club president issued us with slippers and flung open double doors to reveal what a vast room, seven metres wide by twenty long, he said, with a concave floor – he called it a gutter – running its length.
He presented me with something heavy that resembled a squashed pear…not round, one side was less so than the other, which was weighted down by a lead plug on the bottom. A metal ring, adjustable, encircled the thing and it weighed a ton.
No mere boule this, but a boule de fort.
The idea of the game was similar to that of all games of boules….to get nearest the jack, but when some of the gentlemen demonstrated, it was apparent that this was a far more sophisticated game.
The slippers were to protect the gutter in which the game was played, and the teams had two sorts of players….the first would select their spot and gently roll the boule as near as they could to the jack.
The second were the artillery..they would roll the boules down at speed to clear opponents’ boules from the track. The noise was unbelievable.
I could see that it would take a lot longer to learn this game than that as practised in Jules’ yard on a spring evening.
Back in the club room, the president explained that these clubs were, like the old ‘amicales’, the refuge of men and very precious too in the days when unless you could afford to marry, you didn’t, so respectable bachelors needed a place to foregather and talk dirty.
The vocabulary could be a bit ‘special’ – nothing these days when filth spews from every television set – but mostly double entendres and very daring in their day, of which the one which has lasted longest is the invitation to ‘partager une fillette’ – to share a young lady.
Before anyone gets all PC, it would be as well to know that a ‘fillette’ is a half bottle of wine, and I’ve shared a few fillettes in my time without any moral damage to either party.
The most important duty of the president was to choose the wine to fill the fillettes…..and make sure he got a good price so that the members paid about half the price of the same stuff in a regular bar.
However, as always, the best was saved for last.
The president explained that after a game, a player who had made no score at all was obliged to pay a forfeit.
.Yes, a round of drinks, the losing team would pay that, but for the man with no points to his name, a special forfeit was in store.
He had to ’embrasser Fanny’ – to kiss Fanny.
What? I thought this was a men’s club…for respectable bachelors! Where was this woman tucked away?
With a sly smile, the president moved to a cupboard on the wall, which opened out rather like a tryptich to reveal a painting of the luxuriant bare backside of a woman.
This was Fanny!
I wonder what the panama hat and petanque brigade would have made of her…..and whether the ‘living the dreamers’ would ever have discovered her.