French Connections

Find Holiday accommodation in France

RUSTLE, RUSTLE. There's something there, throwing its tiny weight about in the long grass by the steps that lead up to the vegetable garden. A lizard? A mouse? A cricket? A cicada, even?

Presently the grass parts and allows your corresponde

RUSTLE, RUSTLE. There's something there, throwing its tiny weight about in the long grass by the steps that lead up to the vegetable garden. A lizard? A mouse? A cricket? A cicada, even?

Presently the grass parts and allows your correspondent, who obviously has nothing better to do than stand and stare at French creepy-crawlies, to identify it. Slender pale green body, about 7cm long, neatly folded wings, bug eyes. The grass-stalk it favours, swinging itself up with its long legs, isn't strong enough to hold its weight and it crashes down like a mistiming pole-vaulter. It clambers up again, finds a stronger stalk and perches there, its muscular saw-edged forelegs drawn up like an old-time prizefighter, or in an attitude suggestive of prayer. It waits. And watches. And waits.

It's a praying mantis. 'Preying' might be a better spelling, because as soon as anything passes in close range of the swivelling bug eyes, PAF! The forelegs shoot out and grip the luckless passer-by, and its lunch is assured. It caught, and dropped, the blade of grass I waved in front of it as many times as I had patience to wave it. No vegetarian, the praying mantis.

The people round here call it 'Marie-Jeanne', unerringly paying attention to the female, and the older country folk, those that still speak Occitan, call it Lou Prego-Dieu, The Pray-to-God. The male has a pretty rough time of it. During mating the female will turn her head and start to eat her partner. You might think this would cause any red-blooded male to scarper PDQ in search of a less demanding partner, but no: the male mantis puts up with it, content to know that he's nourishing the eggs he's fertilising. I call this total commitment, as the pig said to the hen when arguing about their relative contributions to the breakfast table.

Wasn't it Rudyard Kipling who wrote 'The female of the species is more deadly than the male'?

LA FRANCE PROFONDE is the usual name for Deepest France, the France untouched by Parisian tentacles, Coca-Cola ads, street lighting or main drainage: the hyper-rural France, where you feel you step back 200 years and breathe all the more freely for it, though not necessarily close to the septic tanks. If you're so seduced by it that you come and live there, however, you still tend to clutch your BUPA membership and Sky TV subscription pretty tightly.

I thought I'd found the plumb centre of La France Profonde once, when I first came to live in France 10 years ago. Bardou, it was called, not a place that ever troubled French map-makers much, but you could find it, if you really tried, hidden away in the deep valleys at the north-eastern end of the Montagne Noire. There's nothing there but weekday silence and the occasional clatter of cutlery and clink of glasses on Saturdays and Sundays, when the maisons secondaires, the holiday houses, fill with weekenders from the towns. Otherwise, if you can't get the BBC World Service and your French isn't up to Radio France Inter, there's only the squawk of buzzards, the purr of a distant tractor and rustlings in the undergrowth to ruffle the blanket of silence.

I only mention Bardou as a curtain-raiser for St Léons, another contender for Sleepiest Hollow. It's a minute place not far from Millau, home to France's most chronic traffic snarl-ups, on the eastern edges of the Aveyron département, itself not one of France's best-known.

However St Léons has one up on Bardou: it has a museum, a tiny house with even tinier windows – which tells you something about the Aveyron climate – which was the 1823 birthplace of Jean-Henri Fabre, the entomologist equivalent of Charles Darwin the naturalist or Louis Pasteur the bacteriologist. In 1879 he began to publish his Souvenirs Entomologiques, which I suppose you could translate as Insect Memories. The ninth and last volume came out in 1907, and by that time he'd earned himself the title 'Homer of the Insects'.

His scientific observation is faultless, but his style is something else: These holy airs and graces, he writes about the praying mantis, hide the most atrocious manners, those prayerful arms are a horrible brigand's claws! The praying mantis is the tiger of the peaceful race of insects, an ogre in ambush! Her weapons are her legs, for her thigh is a terrible saw with two parallel blades separated by a kind of gutter into which her lower leg, which also has a saw, slots when it is bent . . .

Homer? More like Stephen King or Dean R. Koontz. Goodness, how nasty. Let's move on.

I WAS playing at a wedding the other Saturday. They'd chosen sensible music, unlike a couple I once played for who wanted Nights in White Satin followed by the last movement of Beethoven's 9th, both of which were about as effective on the tiny electronic organ which I played at the time as playing tennis with a teaspoon.

However our village pipe organ is an absolute gem and I'm always glad of an excuse to clamber up into the organ loft mounted high on the back wall of the church. No Here-Comes-The-Bride-Forty-Foot-Wide for them: they wanted Haydn's St Anthony Chorale, and if you're thinking of getting married you could do worse because it has just the right blend of dignity and deep happiness to process in to on your father's arm. For coming out they wanted the traditional Mendelssohn Wedding March.

Up in the organ loft I can see nothing, and I might as well be sitting in front of the airing cupboard at home for all I'm aware of what's going on below. Josephine plays lookout, with a running commentary delivered in a hoarse whisper: 'They're at the door . . . she's turning round for the photographer . . . she's ready – OK, go!' So the St Anthony Chorale played fortissimo fills the church until Josephine says 'She's at the altar . . . the bridesmaid's just adjusting her dress . . . she's sitting down . . . OK, stop!' Her entry's taken about 90 seconds. Her exit ought to take much the same. No sweat.

At the end the couple and their witnesses sign the register, leaning on the marble altar, and eventually the newlyweds form up ready to process out. 'OK, go!' Josephine urges, so I pull out the trumpet stops and off we go into the Mendelssohn.

However, there's a problem. French weddings really are something else. They decide to receive the guests as Monsieur and Madame then and there, so all 150 queue up to shake hands and give la bise – the kiss on both cheeks – in front of the altar. Meanwhile the Mendelssohn is thundering out and everybody below is shouting above it. I've started; I can't stop until they've left the church. Passers-by, surprised by the football-crowd din, come in and stay to watch, bellowing to each other. Two dogs come in and start barking. Mon dieu.

But I've got another quandary. Mendelssohn only wrote about 5 minutes'-worth of Wedding March. There's a limit to playing it over and over again, so to spin it out I have to improvise, make up stirring, joyful music in the style of Mendelssohn as I go along. Not easy. Why won't they go?

Eventually, after a lot of stuff Mendelssohn never knew he wrote, they begin to leave. It's taken 22 minutes. Phew.

This is just about the time it takes a female mantis to dispose of the male.