AS IF having ringside seats for the Tour de France as it flashed through the village a few weeks ago wasn't enough, the rugby fever sweeping through France, host nation for the World Cup, caught us up unresisting in its onward drive for the touch-line. So the other Sunday my friend Andrew and I set out for Montpellier, one of the tournament venues, for a World Cup fixture we didn't think anyone else would be much interested in.
Montpellier is a splendid city, with levels of sophisticated amenities only exceeded by the civic debt, which must be astronomical. Everything is new, except the old quarter in the city centre, and even that gives the impression of having money lavished on it to retain its pristine antiquity. There's always some vast new public works project on the go (the classic method of reducing unemployment, by the way), and the most recently completed is a second tram line, bisecting the city and linking the north-east with the south-west suburbs. The trams are brightly decorated with stylised flowers in strong reds, oranges and yellows, très 1960s, très Mary Quant. Don't ask me why.
The first tram line, Line A with much more sober royal blue trams, has a terminus close to the impressive Stade (i.e. stadium) Mosson, where in the afternoon Samoa was due to take on Tonga in a clash of South Sea Island titans. We arrived early, found somewhere to park and took the tram into town in search of an agreeable lunch in a riverside brasserie.
A most curious thing happened in the middle of town. We stepped off the tram and were accosted by two dark-skinned men asking in very halting French if we could direct them to a hotel called the Mercure Accor. We couldn't: city centre chain hotels are so featureless that I for one tend not to notice them, certainly not distinguish one from another. We asked a waiter at a nearby café. He pointed in a general direction and all four of us wandered off in search. On the way our two lost souls told us they were Samoan, come over for the World Cup and that afternoon's match. This was pretty impressive, and a first for me: I can't say I've ever met a Samoan before. Then one of them said: Are you brothers?
This was astonishing. Andrew is of such a size that if he played in the middle of the scrum he might well be nicknamed le massif central, whereas I'm by no means the tallest man you've ever seen. Indeed in my rugby playing days about 150 years ago I was occasionally winkled out when they needed a scrum half not much bigger than the ball. (I've grown a bit since, though.) No, we said, we weren't brothers. But you're members of the brotherhood? they asked. No, we said, apart from a vague general membership of the brotherhood of man. Which brotherhood did he mean? But we never found out, because at that moment the Mercure Accor appeared a little way down the street, they thanked us warmly and we said goodbye. Just before we parted I asked what I should shout in Samoan to encourage them. 'Manweeah', they replied. This was an all-purpose Samoan expression meaning 'Go for it!', 'Well done!', 'Bravo!' or simply 'Cheers!'.
Over lunch (carpaccio of beef with capers, flakes of parmesan and salad with balsamic vinegar dressing, followed by crème brulée à la vanille, to give you the full flavour of the occasion) we came to the tentative conclusion that the Samoan mafia must be known for its benevolence and earnest dedication to making life easier for others. We also pooled what we knew about Samoa and Tonga. This didn't amount to much:
SAMOA - Robert Louis Stevenson lived for a while in Samoa and died there, in a place called Vailima.
TONGA - At Queen Elizabeth II's coronation in 1953, Queen Salote of Tonga, a cheerful lady of fabulous girth, was assigned a place in the carriage procession next to a very small personage, probably the Akhond of Swat. Noël Coward was watching the procession. When asked who the little fellow crammed in beside Queen Salote was, he replied 'Oh, nobody special: that's her lunch.'
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IN THE stadium the noise was colossal and deafening, not from the gathering crowds but from the immense speakers mounted on top of the stands: blasts of rock music interspersed with mega-decibel replays of past World Cup matches - generally showing the French doing wonderful things and the English failing abysmally - and top-volume bilingual guides to How To Play Rugby. Shortly before play was due to start two 10- or 12-piece wind and brass bands took up station, one high in the stand behind one goal, the other directly opposite them at the other end of the ground.
The teams processed out, national anthems (recorded by the orchestra and male voice choir of the Garde Républicaine, French equivalent of the Household Division: what extraordinary things they make soldiers do) blasted out over the demon speakers. Both teams performed their hakas, those Polynesian war-dances that appear fearsome and bloodthirsty until you understand the words, which are apparently offers of peace. A South African referee blew his whistle and the match started.
So did the bands. At once the disadvantage of otherwise first class seats, set in a prime position about fifteen tiers above the half-way line, became apparent: one ear blasted with Roll Out The Barrel (goodness knows why), the other with Viva España! (g.n.w., again) both played fortissimo and simultaneously. So what with competing bands and Mexican waves, trumpet blasts encouraging the 24,000+ attendance to cheer, on-pitch shouting from two very noisy teams and grotesquely amplified announcements of the score, which we knew anyway, we rather lost interest in the game itself. We were quite happy to drive home afterwards in the luxury of a companionable silence. It wasn't until I got home that it occurred to me that among the quality French exports, wine, cheese, engineering, meat, fashion, films, literature, political philosophy and all the rest we should henceforth include another hands-down world-beater: French noise.
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A PIONEERING devotee of this column, Janice Linhares of New York, recently sent me card in response to a piece I wrote back in January about the availability of British goodies in this part of the world. Thank you, Janice. So very kind. Your directions were impeccable, our larder is now filled with what put the EAT in Great Britain. 'Champion!' as they say in parts of England. 'Manweeah!' as they say in Samoa. 'Formidable!' as they say in France.