French Connections

Find Holiday accommodation in France

I'D BETTER state right at the outset that this piece is very seriously flawed, because most of it's about an event that I didn't go to, have never been to and would rather have all my teeth pulled than be seen dead at or associating with its palsi

I'D BETTER state right at the outset that this piece is very seriously flawed, because most of it's about an event that I didn't go to, have never been to and would rather have all my teeth pulled than be seen dead at or associating with its palsied aficionados. So if you want a more reasoned, balanced and unprejudiced account you'd better go somewhere else. Any medium that features torturing animals to death, I've no preference.

Every settlement in this part of the world has its summer festival, usually a weekend given over to eating, drinking and dancing. Our village is no exception. The village football club organises a disco every night from Thursday to Monday over the first weekend in August, sometimes with live bands, in the square outside the Mairie. There are large public meals with rows of tables set up outside the salle polyvalente, the all-purpose hall. In our village there are two public loos within a minute of the festivities and a third up by the church, where you would only stagger in the direst need. The significance of this will become plain in a minute.

In Béziers, our nearest large town, a week in the middle of August is set aside for the annual féria. Béziers is mostly an unlovely place reminiscent of Luton or Slough, but it's redeemed by a pleasant old quarter up by the cathedral and by the Allées Paul Riquet, a wide tree-lined pedestrian avenue in the town centre, like the ramblas you get in Spanish towns. In fact the Spanish element in Béziers is strong, and never stronger than during the féria, when les arènes, the circular arena a few minutes from the town centre, hosts a full programme of bull-fighting.

You've possibly twigged from Para. 1 above that if the whole ghastly bull-fighting set-up perished beneath the wave I wouldn't kick up too much of a stink about it. But clearly it has its following, because during the féria the population of Béziers goes up from its normal 120 000 to about 200 000. How they count them I don't know. Nor do I know if the extra 80 000 is the daily number of visitors, or the total for the week. However, visitors and locals, old and young, gather in the evenings in the Allées Paul Riquet, where there are plenty of bars and restaurants, and form a heaving, swaying, singing and dancing ocean of humanity and by all accounts there's a tremendous party atmosphere.
In central Béziers there are 8 public loos. Thankfully for the calculations that follow, we don't need to specify whether they're ladies or gents: they're all à la turque, that's to say you have to stand or squat on two raised foot-platforms set in a kind of shallow sink with a central drain-hole. Nasty.

So if the evening crowd numbers a maximum 80 000, there's one loo per 10 000 people. If the night's festivities start at 9, and finish around 2 in the morning, that's five hours of drinking. If consequently you search out a public loo, statistically you should find no more than 9 999 people queuing in front of you. What's more, in order to keep the traffic flowing, as it were, and ensuring a fair crack of the whip for everyone, your loo-time allocation is 1.8 seconds. Of course this is the very crudest analysis, taking no account of several vital elements, viz. the generally disgusting nature of French public lavatories, to be used only in extremis, the need to go more than once during the evening, incidence of enuresis among aficionados of the bullring, the male French habit of peeing anywhere and everywhere, virtually.

You can guess the upshot of all this. Féria weather was mostly sunny and dry. The strong winds that stirred up flurries of dust and litter by day dropped in the evening, leaving the nights dry and sultry. The reports coming out of Béziers featured not only record crowds, record takings and fine bulls ritually done to death, but also the deeply unpleasant miasma of urine permeating the centre ville, the town centre. I expect the wildcat peers of Béziers justified their action by claiming that they were just doing their bit to lay the dust.

* * *

SOME WEEKS ago some friends dropped in to see us on their way back from Provence. They brought an enormous sheaf of lavender, burgeoning flower-heads, stalks and all, one of several which they'd found lying in the road at intervals, as though they'd bounced off the back of the lavender truck. Sensing an unusual form of roadkill, they put their booty in the boot (or treasure trove in the trunk, if you're reading this in the USA) and drove westward into the Languedoc with heady scents of perhaps the finest lavender in the world wafting about their car.

Just at this time we have a little problem in one of two bassins, small concrete-lined open-air water cisterns fed by one of the springs on our land. The upper bassin, which decants into the lower, is home to mating salamanders and wild watercress, while the lower supports a population of dragonfly larvae and a massive crop of blanket weed. Blanket weed develops in long streaks and thick skeins, like a sort of slimy aquatic gossamer, and if allowed to will choke everything it touches. As far as we know the only way to get rid of it is to hoick it out with a fine net, and even then it's back within a couple of days.

But a chance reading of an internet article about garden ponds suggests that lavender stalks, tied into a bundle, weighted and thrown into the pond, will clear blanket weed in no time flat. If that doesn't do the trick, barley straw will. So while Josephine is busy removing the seeds, which carry the perfume, from the flower heads, I bundle up the stalks again and plunge them into the infested bassin.

Three weeks later, by which time the seeds have dried, the lavender bag factory is in full swing, with Josephine cutting squares of Provençal cloth, doling out a handful of lavender and tying the four corners round with coloured ribbon, and the whole house is very pleasantly scented with one of the great classic fragrances. But in the bassin my lavender stalks have disappeared, swallowed up in green slime.

H'm. No solution there, then. Back to the net. But it occurs to me that Josephine could make a tidy killing selling lavender bags to the Béziers municipality at féria time.