I have become one of those irritating people who bangs on about how wonderful France is
I am living in France on the border between two regions (the Midi-Pyrenees and the Limousin) which also marks a border between two départements (the Lot and the Corrèze). The place lies at the centre of a large, empty patch of France coloured green on the map to signify an unspoiled, ravishing landscape and one more beautiful and generous than anywhere I’ve lived before. Four months ago I put my belongings into my car and came to France, heading with crossed fingers and bated breath for a small, mushroom-coloured house I had found on the internet and rented. As I approached my destination the view in every direction became increasingly stunning and I dared to hope that I might have fallen on my feet. And so I had: miles of oak-wooded hills; pale, orderly walnut orchards; shaggy limestone cliffs; meadows that tremble with a kaleidoscope of colour. It is green and it is lush; cows stand belly deep in grass; ripe fruit drops from the trees and everyone says hello to one another. I have become one of those irritating people who bangs on about how wonderful France is.
Or at least I would if I ever spoke to anyone for long enough — I never hear or speak English and my French extends to the necessaries but not beyond them: I sound quite sure of myself in the café, marché, boulanger and maison de la presse but throw me out of the run of the mill and I lose my way entirely. Three minutes’ dialogue per day, however, is quite enough for me and the French combination of polite but private suits me very well. The most noise I make is singing aloud as I cycle the empty lanes in the afternoons. (Choral music: any or all of the parts and sometimes the orchestra’s too.) Yesterday I broke off from ‘Quantus tremor est futurus’ to address a crowd of yellow goslings emerging from a shed into the dappled sunlight. ‘Ah, my little darlings,’ I said as they peep-peeped shyly towards me, ‘do you know what you are going to be when you grow up?’
Foie gras is a staple protein here and geese potter about in the walnut groves until the gong is rung for gavage. The other mainstay of the main course is beef, and Limousin cattle are at least as plentiful as geese or people. The bulls are thunderous and intimidating, every one of them the size of a minibus and muscled up to superhero proportions (wasp-waist, giant chest and miniature feet). They can radiate a dull, gum-chewing menace across 50 yards of clover and an electric fence.
In the middle of April, the cattle were celebrated in a two-day fête de boeuf and every weekend since has brought another reason not to take the bunting down: flowers, vegetables, red fruit, bread and carriage-drivers (so often neglected) have all been nominated their own festivals and any day now I expect to see posters announcing forthcoming apple, maize and mushroom fairs. In addition there have been flea markets, open air concerts and repas dansants. The football pitch has hosted a monster truck show and the town square a puppet show. The sky blazed with fireworks on 14 July and last Saturday night the local pompiers arranged an open-air barbecue and disco. There is something especially pleasing about a barbecue that has been organised by firemen. (I hope it encourages the ambulancemen to follow suit and sponsor an informal soirée of picnicking and bumper cars.) Saturday’s knees-up was unstinting: an entire beast was already turning on a spit outside the church door at nine in the morning and within arm’s reach a beer pavilion had opened for business. At 8 p.m. the band struck up and after that came the disco. The ensuing seven-hour dance-off was fuelled by beer, steak and aligot (potato mashed with cheese, garlic and butter). Anyone foolish enough to set his house on fire or lose his kitten up a tree on Sunday morning might have faced, after dialling 18, a bit of a delay.
It is a distinct possibility, however, that a kitten would never command the attention of the pompiers Lotois. Edible creatures are prized here but what is inedible tends to be either shot, run over or kept on a tether. I’ve seen more cats dead than alive: ironed on to the tarmac by motorists and then glued where they lie by the sun. Dogs are clipped on to chains and then quite often shut into cages for good measure — even the fluffy, hand-luggage sort: a local Pomeranian turns demented circles on its rope like a painted pony on a merry-go-round. Dead cats are regrettable but a flattened red squirrel is, to me, a tragedy. If only they weren’t quite so dim they might stand a better chance. When I disturb one in the road on my bike it is just as likely to panic and throw itself under my wheels as it is to make a run for the verge — although ‘run’, in fact, is not quite the right word for it since they look more as if they travel on roller skates.
My feeling of sympathetic fellowship for the red squirrel may have something to do with being a redhead. Although the hairdresser, twirling her scissors, assures me that France is cluttered with redheads, I have yet to see another in the Lot. There has been much discussion of them in the press, however — at least the silly sections of the press that I can understand — because of that ‘rousse flamboyante’, Rebekah Brooks, and her ‘méthodes crapuleuses’. My dinner-party French may be nonexistent but the colloquial French of the gutter press I find utterly addictive: ‘Stupeur et tremblements!’ ran a particularly pleasing headline and ‘cheveux à betaille’ — battle-weary hair — is a new favourite. And so I happily inhabit every cliché that presents itself: I dress in stripy T-shirts; I ride a bicycle; I am trying to write a book; my French is poor, and my view of France indulgent, romantic and nonsensical. Long may such cheerful foolishness be permitted to last.