A trip to the supermarché at the beginning of our French month yielded many of the necessary things one also buys at home, but even washing powder acquires romance when sporting a French label, and the fresh fish, meat, veg and wine sections are far bigger than ours, with mountains of lettuce and seven different varieties of tomato. The Carrefour bookshelves also yielded Tintin books which are, like Asterix, best read in French. I bought Tintin et L’Ile Noir, Tintin et La Crabe au Pinces D’or, and my favourite, Tintin et Les Bijoux de Castefiore. The French is simple, the drawings are masterpieces, subtle, witty, full of style and character. And what character, identifiable by their hair, clothes and accoutrements like black moustaches — baddies, goodies, the ever-polite Tintin and his best friend, the white Scottie dog Milou (better in English — Snowy). They have made me laugh aloud for a week. They are politically incorrect and of their time, but otherwise stories of innocent adventures, hair-raising scrapes and rescues, astonishing journeys by land, sea, air and other exciting modes of transport.
Coming to France a couple of days after the election was coming to another world. The terrible events at home were viewed through the filter of ‘abroad’ and seemed strangely unreal. French papers have naturally been preoccupied with their election, not ours, though the Grenfell Tower fire briefly became headlines. The banlieues of Paris and other large cities have tower blocks which house the largely jobless immigrant population, and those who say working-class Londoners are badly housed should take a day trip on Eurostar. The high-rise suburbs are boiling cauldrons of resentment, poverty and unemployment, especially during a hot summer. They will boil over any day.
If anyone said men would always vote for a good-looking woman they would be castigated, but Justin Trudeau and now Emmanuel Macron are handsome men who benefited from the female vote, and never let anyone tell you otherwise. In Britain we disapprove of those who are too lazy or uncommitted to vote — ‘think of the suffragettes’— but in France, withholding your vote is regarded as a legitimate form of protest. The turnout in the recent elections was 42 per cent, so what kind of endorsement does Macron have? He probably doesn’t care — he is just getting on with his own stab at the permanently hopeless task of changing French demands for a 36-hour week, a two-hour lunch and retirement at 55. He also plans to cull 120,000 jobs from the bloated public sector. Good luck with that. But he has youth, vigour, optimism and political inexperience on his side, and among the tired-looking European heads of state he is like the fresh breeze that broke two recent weeks of soaring temperatures.
Not even Macron could alter the French attitude, a.k.a. rudeness, especially among waiters. Our waiter in Cahors came sullenly to the table, whereupon we smiled and started to give the order. No sooner had the words ‘Un café’ been uttered than he was turning away, not waiting for further vital words. I asked his departing back for one black, one ‘au lait’. When two black coffees arrived, I requested milk. He scowled, and, after several minutes’ wait, dumped it at the far end of the next table, leaving me to get up and walk round for it. I like to tip waiters well. It’s a poor job, poorly paid. For this one, though, it was: ‘Pas de charme, pas de pourboire’ — ‘No manners, no tip’.
So many things have changed in France since I first stayed 40 or more years ago, and for the worse — shops closed, no longer a café-bar in every village, houses boarded up and falling to ruin. But here in the beautiful country of the Lot valley, farming does not change. Sunflowers are growing like triffids, men snip tendrils from rows of vines, melons fatten, maize ripens. You see combines rented by an entire commune, but there are still small tractors from the 1950s; goats, cows, chickens roam; and gentle brown cows have calves beside them in the fields. People still look up from their work in the fields to wave to passing strangers, and old, retired, toothless farmers bring a few dozen eggs, two boxes of courgettes and some tomatoes to the local market, selling them to fund a glass of rosé and a plate of saucisson frites from the travelling cook. They sit with their fellows at a shady table, talking, drinking, smoking, laughing. Eating. France still stops for lunch.
Susan Hill’s latest novel From the Heart is out now (Chatto, £10.99).