French Connections

Find Holiday accommodation in France

LIKE ANY good journo - and what else would you expect here? - I keep a record of everything that goes into Campbell's Diary. The complete archive goes back a bit further than the February 2001 entry you get if you scroll right down to the foot of the back numbers. I'm mentioning this only in case anyone raises an eyebrow at the following item from November 2000.


LIKE ANY good journo - and what else would you expect here? - I keep a record of everything that goes into Campbell's Diary. The complete archive goes back a bit further than the February 2001 entry you get if you scroll right down to the foot of the back numbers. I'm mentioning this only in case anyone raises an eyebrow at the following item from November 2000:

WE'RE ENJOYING having a group of children from Ullapool, on Scotland's remote north-west coast, here in the village on school exchange. Their most unexpected reaction? Far from being wary of 'foreign' food, they say they've never eaten so well in their lives...
They're staying in a hostel and taking most of their meals in the school canteen, but for one evening of their stay they paired off with local kids to spend some time with them in their homes. One local mother was very uneasy indeed about what she could serve them for supper that wouldn't clash too horribly with the fare on offer in downtown Ullapool.
Te tracasse pas, said her son, don't worry: they'll eat anything – they even like our school dinners!

Well, the Ullapudlians, if that's the word for someone who comes from Ullapool, are back. Not the same kids, of course, but an 18-strong group of singers, dancers and musicians just as talented as their predecessors were ten years ago. For Peter Harrison the Rector (as they call secondary head teachers in Scotland) of Ullapool High School, his wife Fran, Val Bryan the newly retired music teacher and one or two other adults it was a return visit, and they arrived with a full programme of songs, dances and instrumental pieces with which they hoped to entertain the village. Josephine and I looked forward to rekindling old friendships in the light of the very modest contribution we'd made to their previous visit.
Determined people, these Ullapudlians. Flying from Prestwick, near Glasgow, to Carcassonne, they discovered that Mr Ryanair, while providing all that you might expect from a budget no-frills service, makes life unaccountably difficult for musicians by not allowing instruments as hand luggage and restricting hold luggage to one bag per person. As the purpose of the trip revolved around music-making, some other solution had to be found.

Thanks to Mr Google they discovered an instrument hire service in Carcassonne, a shop aptly (but deceptively) called SOS Musique, so they put in an advance order for so many fiddles, guitars, accordions, keyboards, etc., to be collected on their arrival. Nothing easier, you might think, to get off the plane at Carcassonne airport, one of France's most homely, embark on the waiting bus, call in at SOS Musique and load up. H'm. At 2pm on the Monday of their arrival the SOS Musique doors were firmly barred. Knowing that French lunch breaks, particularly in the deep south, were variable, not to say elastic, they waited. And waited. In vain. At 3.45 they gave up, returned glumly to the bus and set out instrumentless on the 90 minute journey to the village. A heavy blow.

Josephine and I heard this sad saga when we went down that evening to the village Campotel, the budget no-frills hostel where the Ullapudlians were staying, to greet them. Why had the shop been closed? they wondered. We had no ready explanation, other than that provincial shops often do close on Mondays. Some do, some don't. There's no universal pattern to it.

They were obviously floored by this turn of events, so we volunteered to drive to Carcassonne the next day, Tuesday, to collect the instruments, and immediately wondered if we hadn't rushed in where angels feared to tread. At the moment France is heaving with strikes, demonstrations (called manifestations here, manifs for short), and every conceivable form of that refined industrial cussedness that the French have such a gift for. The protests are ostensibly against government plans to extend retirement age from 60 to 62, still easily the cushiest in Europe. It seems to me, from my retired ease, that it's really the French have-nots demonstrating against the haves, and that any union-led movement that tries, as they are doing, to enlist schoolkids by encouraging them to bunk off to swell the numbers parading down the streets is doomed to failure.

One of the protest measures was to close the refineries and cut off fuel supplies. Sensing what was coming, we'd filled up several days before. Were we going to sacrifice our precious diesel driving to Carcassonne? If we ever got to Carcassonne, would we find ourselves in a miasma of tear gas and smoke from burning tyres, surrounded by a howling mob, overturning and setting light to cars, smashing shop windows, no doubt SOS Musique among them, looting, launching wheelie bins stuffed with combustibles and hurling Molotov cocktails at the riot police? On Tuesday we set off anxious and apprehensive...

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The CeilidhThe Ceilidh

THE NEXT night, Wednesday, Josephine and I, together with kids from the local collège and their parents, were invited down to the Campotel for the official welcome and the planned ceilidh. (You can see your ever-faithful diarist - with stick - in the photo at the top of this article interpreting for the deputy maire.) The Ullapudlian ceilidh band had arranged itself at the far end of the room, fiddles, guitars, accordions and keyboard, SOS Musique's best. The kids lavished an amazing, unforgettable evening on us. Clearly music has a very high profile in Ullapool.

The CeilidhThe Ceilidh

The choir gave us Gaelic songs, some of their own composition. Their dancers, accompanied by a skilled piper, a flame-haired lad called Norrie Dillon, gave us the Highland Sword Dance, apologizing for the lack of swords: Mr Ryanair had banned them on the plane. The highlight of the evening was getting the village kids - and their parents - to join in Scottish country dances like The Dashing White Sergeant and Strip the Willow. A triumphant and even moving expression of the Auld Alliance, the traditional friendship between France and Scotland.

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AND THOSE strikes? Looking back through the Campbell's Diary archive, I found the following:

JUST NOW France is beset with strikes and demonstrations, mostly about pension reform, but it's really the left re-asserting itself after crushing electoral defeats a year ago. Old hands recall wistfully the heady days of May 1968, when a combination of trade unions and students eventually brought down De Gaulle. To have been a soixante-huitard, a sixty-eighter, is now a matter of pride, a bit like having been an Old Contemptible or an Aldermaston marcher.

"La rue s'exprime," said Jean-Pierre Raffarin, the embattled Prime Minister, "mais la rue ne gouverne pas." The street makes its views known, but the street does not govern. Wit and Wisdom, or Famous Last Words?

The date? June, 2003. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose, as the French say. The more things change, the more they stay the same. And (in case you were wondering) there was no sign of any protest in Carcassonne, and we even found some diesel on the way back.

* * *

EVERYTHING IN its season, visiting groups from Ullapool, strikes (no French autumn would be complete without its harvest of strikes) and . . .
. . . walnuts. A huge crop this year. A bad back has prevented me doing my Tarzan act in our walnut tree this year, swinging from branch to branch and jumping up and down on them to dislodge them, preferably without braining Josephine, waiting below, in the process. The weather's done all that for me.


In previous years we've had competition from passers-by, convinced that anything growing by the roadside is public property, i.e. finders keepers. We manage to dissuade them most years, but this year we've been constantly foiled by other red-coated, bushy-tailed finders keepers. At one time we must have had four red squirrels helping themselves. They come and go too quickly to take photos, but here's Josephine's mighty crop, all 6kg of it. Walnut cake and Waldorf salad into the foreseeable future.