'SEVEN O'CLOCK sharp on the Esplanade' the maire said, when we happened to meet him in the village Tourist Office. What he actually said was à dix-neuf heures pile, at nineteen hours exact. Traps for the unwary here. First there's the 24-hour clock, so Brits have to trot out a little mental arithmetic. Then there's this curious word pile, pronounced 'peel', meaning exactly, precisely, but only when you're talking about time, or amounts of money or measurements in general. It's a useful word: otherwise it can also mean an electric battery, a stack of firewood, the reverse side of a coin, a beating or hammering. (No, no, please don't thank me: I can't help it. Once a teacher, always a teacher. Let's get on with the story.)
The Esplanade is a public park that would reach down to a pleasant public river beach if the privately-owned riverside plots, many of them overgrown jungles, didn't prevent access. The only non-trespass way to get to this beach is by boat. Even this isn't easy: the river is so shallow upstream of the beach that if you're in a canoe, say, you have to get out and push. (Yes, yes, I'm coming to the point. Please don't worry.)
The maire invited us there as part of a rent-a-crowd to mark the start of the village fête. The annual village fête is a five-day affair, mostly centred on late-night dancing in the streets but also involving markets, cultural events and general promotion of the village. France 3 Television would be there for a live broadcast of the official opening, the maire said. He asked us to pass the word round the expat community. The bait was varied: being part of a background crowd on French television didn't seem much of an attraction, but the offer of free drinks, covered by the useful term apéro, is always popular. We contacted several Brit friends and passed the message on.
The evening in question was heavy and humid, with thunder not far off. We strolled down to the village, passing the Esplanade, where not much seemed to be happening. We found the maire and several local councillors and some knots of village worthies outside the doctor's surgery, where a local producteur (wine producer) was offering samples in quantities that would have made a thimble blush. The maire welcomed us, greeting me effusively as jeune homme, young man, which is what the elderly sometimes do in France to flatter themselves that all is not yet spent. He explained that the venue had been changed because of the threat of thunder: as it was a live broadcast we might all have to dive for cover if the heavens opened at the critical moment. Into the surgery? I asked. No, no, the maire said, into the Salle des Comportes next door. This is a small commune-owned cellar sometimes used for exhibitions. It seemed a sensible alternative, particularly as the rent-a-crowd now numbered about thirty, of which at least six were Brits.
So we sipped at our measly thimblefuls until Hector, one of Scotland's finest, took matters in hand and firmly grasped a bottle of rosé from the producteur's stand to pour us enough to make hanging about waiting worthwhile. From scenes like these old Scotia's grandeur springs, That makes her loved at home, revered abroad, as Robert Burns would undoubtedly have written if he'd been there. Glass in hand, I submitted to a long monologue from the maire of a nearby village, an invited guest like ourselves, about the merits of reed-bed sewage systems. Why do people feel the need to tell me things like this? Meanwhile nobody noticed that the maire and his immediate entourage had disappeared.
7.15 came and went, 7.30, 7.45 . . . and no sign of any television cameras. The daily local news programme finishes at 7.30, so something must have gone wrong. The thunderstorm had so far held off. The neighbouring maire finished his disquisition about sewage disposal, looked at his watch and made off. The rosé bottle was done and we too decided to call it a day.
On the way home we met Beautiful Kate, very excited. Did we know? Had we seen? The village had just been on TV, the maire, some councillors, fête organisers and all. It had all been televised, she said, with the classic view of the village, trademark bell-tower, 12th century Devil's Bridge and the old houses as a backdrop. She was very proud.
Josephine and I looked at each other with a wild surmise. Slowly it dawned. It could only have been televised from the leafy terrasse of a local - and first-class - restaurant which overlooks the river and the old village. Private premises, obviously, from which unwanted interlopers could have easily have been strong-armed out, probably by heaving them into the river below.
Unwanted interlopers - that was the key. If you read last month's Campbell's Diary (go on, read it now if you missed it) you'll remember the frantic brouhaha caused by opponents of the local windfarm project. Adepts at disruption, they could so easily have hi-jacked the official opening if they'd known where it was to be held. So the wily maire sent out invitations left, right and centre to a decoy venue, switched to the genuine venue at the last moment and outwitted the anti-windfarmers. Only there weren't any.
We went home scratching our heads. Had we been outwitted, too? Had we been used as decoy ducks? Well, who cares? That rosé was really very good.
* * *
I FINISHED last month's Campbell's Diary, checked it through, sent it off and hit the road for yet another of our innumerable trips to the UK this year. By chance I'd mentioned the high quality of the village water.
No sooner had we shaken the dust of the Hérault département from our tyres than the local water authorities changed to another - and inferior - source of supply behind our backs. There were immediate howls of protest. Clearly I would have to eat my words, or at least drain the bitter cup of misinformation.
Until a few weeks ago our water came from a tiny but deep lake nestling in a hidden fold of the Espinouse, the range of dragon's teeth mountains that shelter our valley to the north. It was wonderful water, soft, full and rounded, and almost sweet with a hint of tastebud-tickling minerals, a pleasure to drink straight from the tap.
But a recent European Union regulation stipulates that sources of water open to the skies are to be replaced over a certain time-scale by underground sources. Now our water is pumped up to us from calcareous aquifers deep below the river bed and miles downstream.
Time-scale? Lime-scale would be more to the point. Our new water is cloudy and hard, heavily charged with chalky deposits that clart themselves all over kettles, dishwashers, heat-pumps, shower mixer taps, everywhere. Including our insides. Maybe we've had it too good for too long, maybe we ought to accept that change is inevitable . . . or maybe we should cosy up to that protest group?