French Connections

Find Holiday accommodation in France

THERE'S A first time for everything, of course. Catching measles, eating oysters or spinach, riding a bike without stabilisers, baking an uncollapsed sponge, your first unassisted length of the pool, uttering a virgin merci or bonjour on your firs

THERE'S A first time for everything, of course. Catching measles, eating oysters or spinach, riding a bike without stabilisers, baking an uncollapsed sponge, your first unassisted length of the pool, uttering a virgin merci or bonjour on your first visit to France, not to mention some of life's richer passionate eyes-closed dynamite experiences. Add to the list, if you want. There's no charge.

Josephine and I notched up a first the other day, even at our advanced age. Not too much eyes-closed passion about it, I'm afraid: we went on a protest march, something we'd never done before. The nearest we'd ever come to registering public disapproval, apart from putting the world to rights in the pub, was signing the occasional petition.

There's a big stushie going on along the valley about a proposal to create a giant rubbish dump in a disused quarry up in the hills. It's supposed to be for dead-end rubbish that can't be economically recycled, what they call ultimes déchets. In our village we're asked to sort out our rubbish, separating out the glass, paper, metal and plastic containers into special hoppers ready for recycling. The rest – banana skins, oyster shells, coffee grounds, dust, corks, old shoes, you name it – become ultimes déchets. At the moment this gets carted off to the local dump, high above the village, and no prizes for guessing why even the maire calls this unlovely, stench-ridden, smoke-girt fastness Mont Vésuve.

But Mont Vésuve's days are numbered. There's a closure order on it, along with all the other mini-dumps in the area, and quite right too. Hence the need to find a new maxi-dump, to serve all the surrounding area.

But where? This is an area of outstanding natural beauty, so much so that they've designated it Le Parc Natural Régional du Haut Languedoc, the High Languedoc – oh, come on, you can translate it yourself. Parks and dumps don't mix. We're daily expecting a new franglais term to appear, le nimbyisme. Maybe it already has. So there's good carrion here for the protesters. Some groups are impressively well organised, others create as much pollution with roadside daubings and fly posting as they fear will ooze out from the new dump.

Anyway, we went along to St Rémy one Saturday afternoon to march in support of the anti-dumpers, an event the French call une manifestation, manif for short. There was a carnival atmosphere, the sun shone, stalls sold home produce in aid of protest funds, little children dressed as ultimes déchets ran about, bands played, eyes-closed passionate speeches in French and Occitan, the ancient language of the Midi, poured from a gaily decorated podium. The march set off, about 2000 strong, banners and placards held aloft, singing, laughing, shouting cheery greetings to friends at upper windows or a few ranks behind. We were somewhere in the middle, sandwiched between the brass band at the head and an accordion duo playing folk dance tunes behind us. Good fun.

The préfet, the President's man in the département, had banned the march from the Grand' Rue, so we obediently kept to the back streets. The only hint of the traditional French gift for public disorder appeared in crossing the Grand' Rue, when ranks seven of eight broad narrowed to a funeral-paced single file, in order to hold the traffic up for as long as possible. If you have anything of a subversive streak in you, this can be quite good fun.

THE MARCH reformed by the hospital and set off back to the cathedral square, led by the children and some floats decorated to show the effects of ill-placed rubbish dumps. A concert followed, with bands and singing, and presently everyone went home, having had a very nice time.

Too nice, really. If you want to make a political point, even for something as local as the siting of the area tip, you have to use all the clout at your disposal. There's an example close at hand: José Bové, president of body called La Confédération Paysanne, a guild of small farmers, lives not far away, a much respected rural militant on his way to becoming a cult figure. At least, he lives not far away when he isn't doing time for burning down American-style burger eateries.

A sturdy, moustached man reminiscent – apart from his trademark pipe - of Vercingetorix or other fine Gallic folk-hero, José Bové is clearly a professional of the first water. When ordered to report to Montpellier's equivalent of Wormwood Scrubs or Sing Sing to start a stretch, he drove down from his farm in the hills on his tractor, followed by sympathisers. Result? Traffic chaos, all the way to the what the French call la taule, i.e. jug, clink, stir, quod, choky or the slammer.

Could José Bové be the man to lead the dump protest?

ONE OR two revealing remarks at the weekly rehearsal of the choir I conduct the other night. We're learning that classic among negro spirituals, beloved of Southampton football club supporters, When the Saints go marching in. Nobody speaks much English down here, so in learning anything in English we have endless problems.

Jean-Phillippe, one of our basses, was surprised when the music of When the Saints, which I simply refer to as 'Les Saints', was handed round and we started the slow and painful process of getting French tongues round English words. He'd known The Saints from childhood, having heard it sung countless times, but he'd always supposed the opening line was 'O When the Saints Go Martini'.

But this pitfall is minuscule compared with the yawning heffalump trap I fell into. Having spent 75 concentrated minutes on a Schubert Mass we're learning, I thought it was about time we changed to something lighter. Rangez le Schubert, put the Schubert away, I said with an experienced choirmaster's authority, and get your 'Saints' out, sortez les Saints.

A surge of delight punctuated by some shouts of laughter swept through the sopranos and altos, while the tenors and basses nodded and chattered excitedly. I know The Saints is a popular piece, and the Schubert, although very fine and moving, is undeniably churchy, but I hadn't expected quite such an enthusiastic response. Presently the entire choir was heaving with uncontrollable laughter. I felt like a teacher who's lost control of the class.

Light dawned, too late. 'Saints' is pronounced virtually the same as 'seins'. And 'seins' means breasts. Get your boobs out, girls. For the lads. Oh, goodness. The toe-curling embarrassment kept me awake long into the nightingale-haunted night, but as for the others, I'm sure they too went home having had a really nice time.