French Connections

Find Holiday accommodation in France

IT'S TARZAN time again, time to change into the old tigerskin loincloth, beat my chest, spit on the palms of my hands and swing myself up into the cherry tree, uttering strange jungle cries.
Not really, of course. Fantasy must have its limit

IT'S TARZAN time again, time to change into the old tigerskin loincloth, beat my chest, spit on the palms of my hands and swing myself up into the cherry tree, uttering strange jungle cries.
Not really, of course. Fantasy must have its limits. The truth is that after several days of picking cherries I'm a perfect wreck, so stiff that I'm barely able to put one foot in front of the other. Our cherries are dearly paid for with aches and pains. Then there's that other little problem, the unsettling sense of an uneasy tum: there's such an urgent temptation to overeat, to finish the bowl of glistening, succulent dark red fruit, knowing that there's plenty more, in fact far more than we know what to do with.


As a child I spent more summertime up trees than on the ground. Although that agility has never really left me, using those tree-climbing combinations of muscles only once a year, for the cherry harvest, leaves me groaning in agony and looking vainly in remote cupboards for dusty embrocations, ointments and liniments. In a perfect world, of course, eating cherries would magically heal the pains of picking them.

We have about ten cherry trees, all of different varieties calculated to ripen successively over the weeks of the cherry season. This wasn't our calculation. We inherited this very sensible system from previous landowners. The best, juiciest, sweetest and most acidulated cherries are the reds - actually almost black when ripe - that come to fruition towards the end of May. The whites - actually red - follow a week or two later.

Towards the end of May we watch the calendar with the care of astronomers calculating the next eclipse of the sun, noting bank holidays in the UK and jours fériés (public holidays) in France, of which there are usually four and it's a wonder that anything at all gets done here in May. If the best of the red cherry crop coincides with the Monday of a holiday-free week, and if there are no postal strikes in either country, in the past we have made up packs of freshly-picked cherries to send by post to our aged mothers in Scotland (in my case) and Essex (in Josephine's).
So on the last Monday in May the auguries were good, we took deep breaths and the parcels went off, the cherries securely wrapped in heavy-duty freezer bags and any remaining space in the first-class, postage-prepaid, fold-it-yourself boxes stuffed with paper shreddings. But the one Great Unknown, the X factor, in our calculations remained: how long would the post take? In previous years we'd reckoned on three days.

Tuesday passed. On Wednesday we waited for calls overflowing with maternal thanks for a such a wonderfully luscious taste of the Languedoc, but call came there none. Thursday brought no calls, but polite enquiries from the generous, ever-obliging and long-suffering proprietors of this column: where was the copy? What had happened to it? It was well past the deadline, sell-by and best-before dates.

Josephine and I began to fear the same for the cherries . . .

* * *

TIME TO kill in Montpellier, most sophisticated of France's Mediterranean cities, nicer than Nice, leads me and Patricia and Monica to explore some of the vieux quartier, the old quarter. P and M, in case you were wondering, are the two sopranos in my 8-strong choir Les Jeudistes. We have a gig - if that's the word for a choir that feeds on motets and madrigals - in the afternoon, leaving the morning free. The Montpellier civic authorities look after the old quarter very well, although there's a perpetual state of war between them and the platoons of taggeurs, graffiti-vandals, whom one might just find it in one's heart to forgive if occasionally they threw up the wit and wisdom of a Banksy, but mostly their vile degradations of noble Renaissance stonework consist of spray-can daubings of territorial messages in a monstrous script so impenetrable that I can't read the bloody things even if I wanted to.

Montpellier Wall Mural

So P and M and I wander up and down narrow mule-wide pedestrianised streets of chic boutiquerie and enticing little restaurants, streets paved and sometimes stepped in marble, travertine and polished limestone with evocative names like Rue du Bras de Fer (Iron Arm Street), Rue de l'Argenterie (Silversmith Street) and Rue de la Vieille Aiguillerie (Old Needleworks Street). Suddenly we find ourselves in Place St Côme - that's St Cosmas to you and me - and opposite us there's a piece of urban art even Banksy would be proud of. I know it's there, because Josephine and I were here two or three years ago: hence the date on the photo.

You rub your eyes. What's going on? The young people on the steps, the child at the window, the cat on the window-sill, the photographer at the extreme right - however long you watch them, they don't move. No breeze shakes the hanging banner. No birds fly across the reflection of the St Côme's church opposite. It's trompe-l'oeil, an eye-deceiver. Some of the windows are real, otherwise it's all an enormous mural painted on to a mostly blank wall.

P and M slowly take it all in and remember other places where artists have been commissioned to paint trompe-l'oeil murals like this. They mention other towns and villages in our part of the world, Castres, Labastide Rouairoux, Bédarieux, enough to make me wonder if there's a growing French fashion for brightening up rundown and uninteresting masonry by painting might-have-beens on them. A great idea. And so much more attractive than graffiti.

* * *

BACK TO those cherries . . .

Friday comes. Still no call from satisfied cherry-fed mothers. At length we dare to phone across the Channel ourselves, to ask if certain parcels have arrived. What parcels, dear? they ask. H'm.
We'd rather not specify. No unchilled cherries can possibly stay fresh for five days. At least the bags were well sealed. It's unlikely that the stinking fermenting cherry soup we imagine is in there will have leaked . . . unless of course the release of carbon dioxide and other noisome fermentation gases has blown the bags open. And the boxes too. The scenario grows more horrific with every passing thought. It doesn't bear thinking about: mothers, postmen, retirement home staff, sorting office workers spattered and worse with the exploding mess. We put return addresses on the parcels, too. They know where we live. We could be in for it.

We'll know better another time, but meanwhile I think we'd better hide in that mural. Just till it all calms down.