Monday, December 4th. St Barbara. Entente Cordiale (EC) rating: 100
The newish mother-and-daughter proprietors of the village shop tell us they'd like to begin stocking typical British products in time for Christm
Monday, December 4th. St Barbara. Entente Cordiale (EC) rating: 100
The newish mother-and-daughter proprietors of the village shop tell us they'd like to begin stocking typical British products in time for Christmas. For some reason they think crackers will sell. We try to dissuade them: the jokes alone will destroy years of Franco-British bridge-building. We lend them a catalogue of mail-order Brit goodies, to give them a few ideas. Nothing happens for days, then suddenly we find chutney on the shelves. It turns out to be French made.
EC rating: -5
Sunday, December 10th. St Romaric. Entente Cordiale rating: 95
As usual I go down to the village early-ish, about 9am, for a couple of peerless croissants from an old friend of this column, Jean-Marie Gosset the master baker. It's only on Sundays that we allow ourselves this treat. In addition I have to say I'm not averse to some frisky dominical persiflage with Mildred, the plump and pleasing girl behind the counter, Mildred's not a very common name in France, which is maybe why she's known as Mila for short. She has a weakness for tops with suggestive if not downright provocative things printed on them in English: 'Squeeze Me, Please Me' or 'The Mighty Handful' or 'Come Into My Secret Garden' .
Wherever do you get these tops from, Mila? I asked her once during the summer. Do you know what they say? They just came from a friperie, she said, a colloquial-ish French word meaning a clothes shop, and no, she'd no idea what they said. She just thought they were pretty. She didn't know much English, just a few words. Would I explain to her? Regretting that what the French often call the language of Shakespeare had come to this, I made the mistake of saying that delicacy forbade me to translate them. If she really wanted to know she'd better ask somebody else. This cop-out probably provided her with agreeably lurid speculation for the rest of the day.
This Sunday morning, though, there aren't any saucy slogans. Mila's not there. I ask the middle-aged, kindly body behind the counter where she's gone. Italy, she thinks. In any case, she's gone for good. I think of Max Beerbohm's Edwardian heroine Zuleika Dobson, who, having wrought havoc among the young men of Oxford, was last seen enquiring about trains to Cambridge. Maybe Mila's now busy titillating elderly Brit expats in Tuscany.
On the way back I call in at the newsagents for our weekly paper, Saturday's Guardian, which arrives here 24 hours late. Ayméric the proprietor has been learning English for some months, if not years, chiefly in order to meet and greet the growing number of his Brit customers. 'Goodbye!' he says enthusiastically as I go in. I raise an eyebrow. Ayméric may not be quite the man to translate Mila's slogans either.
EC rating: +2 for effort, -7 for effectiveness.
Thursday, December 14th. St Odile. EC rating: 90
Alain, a neighbour, calls with a bulging black plastic bin bag. It's a present, he explains: the van came a couple of days ago. Alain works in an exalted capacity for a domestic paper company generous with its freebies. We thank him sincerely. Any time, he says. We get more than we know what to do with. When you've got through that lot, just let me know and I'll come round with more. Don't hesitate.
When he's gone we open the bag. There are one or two kitchen rolls, some boxes of tissues and packets of wipes, but it's mostly full of loo paper. Well, we think, this is more than kind, a really practical and neighbourly gift, but it does pose an unexpected problem. How long a period has to elapse before we take Alain at his word and ask for more? Too long a time, and he may feel he ought to include syrup of figs or senna pods with his next consignment. Too short - but I leave you to imagine the consequences. We've no idea how to get round this. Every day's delay may make the matter worse.
EC rating: +6 for neighbourliness, -2 for long-term appearance of ingratitude
Sunday, December 17th. SS Judicaël and Gaël (who?). EC rating: 94
The village Christmas market. I'm on duty signing books under the aegis of a local bookshop. A called Jean-Paul comes up to me and I just know he's going to complain about something or other. It always happens. People want to treat you as some kind of Aunt Sally, good to have any kind of rant at. At the great 3-day Montpellier Book Fair last May someone accused me of being a linguistic Nazi, crushing other languages to death under the jackbooted heel of English.
Do I not think, he asks, that the quality of Brit expats setting up in the area is declining? Are we not getting the barrel-scrapings of immigrants from perfidious Albion? Are the latest incomers not terribly arrogant? Well, I've no opinion on this, and if I had I'd keep it to myself.
Let me give you an example, he says. My daughter's a primary school teacher. She's got a little English girl in her class who isn't getting on very well because she's very slow at picking up French. My daughter asked her parents to come in to school to see what could be done. Play with French children, watch French television, read French books and magazines, help with the shopping, answer the telephone - she suggested all these things and more. The parents wouldn't have any of it. No, no, they said to her, the solution lies fairly and squarely with you: teach her in English. I have to concede that Jean-Paul has a point. Damn.
EC rating: -10. If true, this is desperate.
Wednesday, December 20th. St Theophilus. EC rating 84.
Through an unusual set of circumstances I find myself preparing a savoury dish for a sort of French bring-and-buy celebration, one of those where everyone contributes to the party eats. In some desperation I think chipolata sausages, grilled and allowed to cool, might be acceptable, maybe with some kind of dip. So I cut up about ten chipolatas into 3cm lengths and impale each piece with a cocktail stick. I cast about for a dip and finally settle on a well-known British pickle, whose name is an anagram of St Non-Bra, an epithet that might apply to Mila but which doesn't so far figure in the calendar of saints. I spoon some out of the jar into a small dish and set off for the party. I've exercised some quality control: they're pretty good, to anyone with tastes developed north of the English Channel, but I doubt if they'll appeal to the French. I find myself not minding too much if they all get left, because then I can bring them home again and eat them myself.
They vanish in seconds. Josephine is submerged under a tide of compliments, which is entirely fair because it was she who actually grilled the sausages. An otherwise cultivated and switched-on lady actually asks for the recipe. For some reason I feel really gratified, but is this noble effort worth 14 points, enough to jack up the EC rating and finish 2006 at par?
We'll just have to try harder in 2007.
Bonne année! Happy New Year!