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AN UNUSUAL and unexpected invitation arrived the other day, one that made us ponder deeply on our whole purpose here on this earth.

The address was given as Foyer des Anciens, UNRPA.

Right. Eyes down for our monthly French lesson. Le

AN UNUSUAL and unexpected invitation arrived the other day, one that made us ponder deeply on our whole purpose here on this earth.

The address was given as Foyer des Anciens, UNRPA.

Right. Eyes down for our monthly French lesson. Let's start with foyer, a word stolen long ago by the English when they were looking for an up-market word for a cinema or theatre entrance hall. This is bizarre, because the word actually means 'hearth'. It's since come to mean 'household' and by extension a place where people and activities are based.

Which leads us on to des Anciens. Of the Ancients? Well, you're not far wrong. But this was a formal invitation, so politesse reigns. Forget old codgers, has-beens, wrinklies, Darby and Joan, daft old bats, Dad's Army, Hells' Grannies, Aged Ps: think Senior Citizens, think time-honour'd veterans with grateful laurel crown'd. So Foyer des Anciens is going to mean Senior Citizens' Base, although I personally much prefer 'Hearth of the Ancients'. Fine. Let's move on to UNRPA.

The French pronounce this letter by letter, making it sound like ee-enn-air-pay-ah, which gives no clue to what it stands for: Union Nationale des Retraités et des Personnes Agées, National Union of Retired and Elderly People. We discover that this is a welfare branch of another acronym, the PCF. A little research shows that this stands for Parti Communiste Française, the French Communist Party.

Maybe it's my generation, I don't know. Thanks to Stalin and his successors in Russia and elsewhere I tend to look on communism as something a bit sinister, a political system of wonderful economic benefit to its bosses and precious little to anyone else, all well over the hill now, not without its comic side. But the news is that the Communist Party is alive and kicking here in France, led by a cosy, motherly woman called Marie-George Buffet in alliance with a fresh-faced, friendly and smiling postman called Olivier Besancenot, who leads the Workers' Revolutionary Party.

So Josephine and I went along, uncertain what to expect but reassured by the terms of the invitation, asking us to 'enhance the occasion with our presence' and to 'accept the devoted and respectful feelings' of the local president.

* * *

IN TIME gone by the village was the mid-point of the railway that used to run along the valley, linking some open-cast coal-mines in the outliers of the Cévennes with the woollen mills and leather tanneries of Mazamet, 70 miles away. The line was closed down 20 years and more ago, and the buildings were put to other uses. In our village the Post Office moved into part of the old station. The waiting rooms were taken over as the Foyer des Anciens, and this was absolutely fine for activities like Loto (i.e. Bingo; see last month's Campbell's Diary) and girning, but for premium pensioner activities like eating and dancing there wasn't enough room. The committee under its new silver-tongued president decided to do up part of the old platform and adjacent track, now just an empty space with the rails taken up, and turn it into a terrasse. Terrasse is a useful French word meaning an open outdoor space, often with some kind of cover for shade, an extension of a bar or café or of your own home.
So we arrived to find a new terrasse fenced, paved, lit, set out with tables and chairs, hung with balloons and flags and ready to be inaugurated. The old railway had been remembered with two parallel courses of paving bricks, hand-painted red at the correct gauge by William, an expat Brit in the village who is fast earning the nickname l'Indispensable. The silver-tongued president made a speech laced with chokings of emotion, the village maire unveiled - with some help from Indispensable William poking loose the clothes pegs holding up the veil - a plaque inscribed Le Petit Train-train (The Little Routine/Daily Round), a local worthy wearing in a peaked cap claimed to be the new station-master employed to see fair play and that everyone had a good time.

Which we did. Unthinkable, of course, that any event like this in France shouldn't be accompanied by a substantial meal. Unthinkable, too, that the substantial meal shouldn't be shaken down and room made for more by bouts of energetic dancing between courses. My goodness, they can dance, these Retired and Elderly Persons. They don't need any encouragement: the music (in this case un homme orchestre, a one-man band, admittedly helped out by a karaoke backing) starts and up they get, waltzing, tango-ing, paso doble-ing, Madisoning and I have to say in Josephine's and my case, holding on tight and swaying about rhythmically.

The menu? I have it in front of me:

Assiette de charcuterie de Lacaune (Plate of cured meats from Lacaune, a local production centre)

Pain de Brusque (Bread from Brusque, a village on the river Tarn where a certain flour is produced)

Porcelet à la broche (Spit-roast sucking pig)

Garniture de légumes: pommes de terre, haricots verts, tomates, lardons, champignons
(Vegetable accompaniment: potatoes, green beans, tomatoes, diced bacon, mushrooms)

Feuilles vertes (Green leaves, i.e. salad)

Fromages d'Auvergne: Bleu et Cantal (Auvergne cheeses: Blue and Cantal)

Salade de Fruits (You can do this yourselves, surely)

Vin Rouge et Rosé à volonté (As much red or rosé wine as you want)

Vin fin (Blanquette, a country cousin of champagne)

Café (Coffee)


* * *

THIS INAUGURATION was planned to coincide with another manifestation of French rural life, Les Feux de la St Jean, The Fires of St John's Day. Nothing to do with St Elmo's Fire, nor with St Vitus' Dance (which many of the Retired and Elderly Persons seemed to be suffering from incurably: nothing would keep them off the dance floor). No, it was Midsummer Night, and goodness knows what atavistic or primeval instinct led the organisers to light an immense bonfire of old palettes a supposedly safe distance away from the festivities.

It was burning away brightly when the music changed to a sort of conga, so virtually the entire company of some 90 souls formed a huge crocodile and made a bee-line (sorry, some mixing of metaphors here: it must be the Vin Rouge à volonté) for the blazing palettes, formed a large ring and danced round them. I have to say there was a very curious and deeply primitive sense of satisfaction in this. I can't begin to explain it. I'd better ask Indispensable William. He's bound to know.