IT'S THAT time again, the annual lunch given by the commune for all the seniors (and the senioras and senioritas, of course) in the village. We first qualified on grounds of age if not of decrepitude two years ago, so we went along with one or two
IT'S THAT time again, the annual lunch given by the commune for all the seniors (and the senioras and senioritas, of course) in the village. We first qualified on grounds of age if not of decrepitude two years ago, so we went along with one or two other Brits. There were a few elements of in-house entertainment and questions were asked why the Brits just sat there like puddings and hadn't contributed. So last year, to fill this ugly gap in the village entertainments programme, we rehearsed a litle song and dance routine. Our moment came, we took the stage, a senior hush fell as a group of retired but mettlesome company executives, local government officers, bakers, authors, teachers, all what the cliché-ridden local newspapers refer to as sujets de Sa Gracieuse Majesté, subjects of Her Gracious Majesty, kicked off into the Hokey-Cokey.
Stunned silence, utter mystification. A few brave French seniors at the back of the hall tried to join in, throwing their arms in the air and disturbing the cutlery on the 'Oh Hokey Cokey Cokey!' but they never really got the measure of it, even by the twelfth time it came round. There was a little tepid applause. Word went round the tables that this was in fact an English rain dance, and this went far to explain the English climate. I didn't feel I could count it among the greatest artistic successes I'd ever been involved with. As entertainments went, it had gone, and good riddance.
I wasn't desperately keen to renew the experience this year, resisting urgings from what President Chirac calls mes chers compatriotes whenever he speaks to the nation on television, to organise the troops into performing Tea for Two or even In and Out the Dusty Bluebells. It's been a wet enough winter here as it is. I wasn't that keen to go to the lunch at all. I dragged my heels until well after the closing date for applications, when to silence the compatriot murmurings I went to the mairie thinking dark thoughts ("If you're so keen, why don't you go yourself?") joyfully expecting to be told sorry, we're full up, there's no room left, you're too late, you should have come earlier.
Geneviève Fau, secretary at the mairie, pulled out the guest list from a drawer, and with it came one of the bizarre little surprises that living in the south of France occasionally throws up. Someone had already put our names down. Not once, but twice. There it was, CAMPBELL X 2 and the same thing a few spaces further down. Spelled correctly, too, not the usual COMBEL we have to put up with. Quite impressive. So instead of having no places at the annual oldies' lunch we now had four.
. I asked who'd put our names down. Mme Fau told me she thought the deputy maire had done it. But why twice? I asked. Oh, just to make certain, she said.
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THE FOLLOWING Sunday morning Josephine and I went down as we usually do to the mairie to listen to the maire give his annual state of the commune speech and to offer New Year good wishes to his flock on behalf of his council. At the door were two senior councillors, including Josette Fornairon, the deputy maire who'd so kindly put our names down for two lunches each. I asked her about it: Oui, she said, c'était moi. Je connais vos habitudes. I know your customs.
So we took our places on a Franco-British table, which is how it should be, and I found myself opposite Marie-Ange, who has appeared in this column before. Apart from being involved in her time on both sides of the catwalk in Miss France competitions, she has clearly been an outstanding businesswoman. Many years ago she'd spotted a gap in the Japanese market, so she'd installed a factory to meet it, the first Frenchwoman ever to do so. What did it make? I asked. Sanitary towels, she answered, and it had been such a success that she'd had to build a second factory. The same product? I asked. No, no, she said, it made processed peas.
At this point all the lights went out, due to some overloading of the circuit somewhere. For some reason the shutters had been closed, so I exercised my British initiative in opening the nearest window and fastening back the shutters to let the light in, an action that drew a much more enthusiastic round of applause than the Hokey Cokey had twelve months before. In squeezing my way back between our table and the adjoining one I had a quick word with Pascal, he of the Belgian jokes and another of this column's regulars. He'd been away over the festive season, in the Ardennes, which is practically in Belgium. I asked him how he'd got on. Not bad, he said, but a friend of his had had a terrible accident: he'd been run over by a steam-roller. Goodness, I said, how dreadful, what an appalling thing to happen. Yes, Pascal said, it was touch and go. I went to see him in hospital the next day. I asked at reception where I could find him and they said Room 28, 29, 30 and 31 . . .
H'm. Well, one up on the Hokey Cokey, anyway.
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In days gone by there used to be a railway line running the length of our valley, through a tunnel under the Col de Fenille and into the next valley, a feat of 19th century engineering for such a mountainous area. If you want chapter and verse, it ran the 80 km (50 miles) from Bédarieux to Mazamet, and it was built principally to convey coal from the Graissessac open-cast mines to the woollen mills and tanneries of Mazamet. The only remaining trace of rolling stock is a sad little pale blue train slowly rotting in a siding in Lamalou les Bains. Otherwise the track has been pulled up and much of the line has been converted into a traffic-free cycle track or bridle path, popular with ramblers, runners, cyclists, horsemen and the occasional illicit teenager ripsnorting 100cc scooters along it. Apart from amazing views between the cuttings, the most exciting parts are the tunnels, which light up progressively via movement-sensitive switches as you pass.
For Christmas my daughter gave me a VTT, which stands for vélo tous terrains, in other words a mountain bike, with its 24 gears putting the old Sturmey-Archer 3-speed we hankered after as kids as the latest thing in bike technology into the shade and out the other side. The old railway line runs almost at the foot of our garden, so there's no excuse for not getting out daily. By this time next year there'll be a super-fit COMBEL ready for anything at the oldies' New Year lunch. Maybe the Can-can? You never know.