Considering the subject of compatibility, experienced British expats in France maintain that a French man and an English woman might work, but rarely the other way around. Anecdotal evidence bears this out. The English chap, for example, who came to look at the septic tank has a long-term French partner who once broke his arm during a domestic dispute. This mildest, most liberal-minded of men lives alone in a mountain refuge whenever feasible. He also has a part-time job as a tour guide in the Far East.
I am currently transitioning to a woman for urgent medical reasons. Force of habit, however, leads me to consider the French women I meet every day in this Provençal village from the point of view of a man. To generalise from my daily encounters in the village, I would say that French women do seem to like men, expect great things of them, and are not fearful of the repellent. Which is a fantastic start by any standards. And so many of them are brimming with health and beauty. They are more beautiful, it seems to me now, than their most conspicuous counterparts during the era of my entirety.
But many also have a directness and sexual clairvoyance that is easily mistaken for ferocity. Even if I were fluent in their language and all my moving parts were in full working order, I’m not sure I’d want to tackle one. I’ve noticed, too, that the firm of Geordie builders who have been here for 20 years, and live mostly in the bars, never associate with the local French women in any meaningful sense. It is true that now and again one does hear of a sexual association implicating these Geordies, but it is always said to be in concert, and with the same woman, and celebrated in a routine or perhaps ritual spirit rather than as a loving or spontaneous intimacy.
For sheer gale-force-ten sexual power, however, I must mention Christine, a hardworking local waitress in her early thirties. I know she is called Christine because my French friend André is acquainted with her and totally agrees with me that in this field she is out on her own. Mention her name in his hearing and he theatrically smites his forehead, or shakes his fingers as if scalded, or staggers as though plugged by a bullet in the chest, or dreamily lifts his eyes to the hills whence cometh his hope. And André is a sophisticated Frenchman in his mid-seventies.
When she isn’t working at tables, Christine must be working out with superhuman intensity to keep in tune an athletic figure of which in summer roughly 80 per cent is on view. I first saw her when she was working the tables of the fascist bar and was so disturbed that I couldn’t face going there any more. The following season she migrated to the blander, posher tables outside the tourist bar, which I then noticed were busier than ever before. Whether this was due to a greater footfall of besotted fascists or to word getting round and busloads of wealthy tourists coming up from the Riviera, I don’t know.
Henceforth I avoided the tourist bar and returned to the fascist one. But I would allow myself a quick glance as I walked past the tourist bar terrace. And there she’d be, poker-faced, wearing not much, and waitressing with her customary dexterity and efficiency. Or she might be relaxing for a stolen moment and drawing hungrily on a very long cigarette. And I’d note the male section of her patrons, many of them elderly, sipping and nod-nodding and otherwise keeping calm and carrying on although mentally stupefied by this amazing form darting about and insinuating itself between the tables.
One quiet Sunday afternoon I encountered her in an otherwise deserted village square with her two young children on her day off. Though I couldn’t bring myself to look, let alone greet her in the normal, polite French fashion — she must have thought I was mad — I sensed about her off-duty self a niceness, an absence of vanity. And then last week in the village shop I had no other choice but to hand her my carrots and leeks, because she was working there at the checkout. It was her first day, judging by her cautiousness and unfamiliarity with the till. She was smaller than I remembered. It was below freezing outside and she was wearing a homely thick-knit mustard cardigan off the shoulder. ‘Thank you, Christine,’ I said as she dropped change into my hand. If she was surprised by her fame among the expat English castrates, she didn’t show it. She looked up curiously, then pleasantly wished me a good evening.