ABOUT TEN years ago Josephine and I, sang for a few unsettled months as in a very largely French choir in the village. At one rehearsal the conductor put a new song in front of us, La Chanson des Adieux, The Song of Farewell, of which the words were unfamiliar but the tune was what we call Auld Lang Syne. As the troops settled down to learn it there was a lot of exaggerated waving and blowing of kisses - it was that sort of choir - which puzzled us until we found out that this song is traditionally sung at end of term, end of summer school, scout and guide camps, residential courses and so on. The chorus went:
Ce n'est qu'un au revoir, mes frères, Ce n'est qu'un au revoir: Oui, nous nous reverrons, mes frères, Ce n'est qu'un au revoir.
It's only au revoir, my brothers, It's only au revoir: Yes, we'll see each other again, my brothers, It's only au revoir.)- so the sentiment was much the same as Auld Lang Syne. I thought they might enjoy learning the movements, arms crossed, holding hands in a circle, advancing and retiring, you know the kind of thing. More subversively, I wondered how the wavers and kiss-blowers would cope with getting their tongues round some of Robert Burns' more esoteric lines, like 'we'll tak a recht guidwillie-waught' and 'we twa hae paidlit in the burn'. I came to the conclusion that the Auld Alliance, the much older Scots version of the Entente Cordiale dating from at least the time of Mary Queen of Scots, could only stretch so far. But the idea of a Burns Supper in the village appealed to me very much.
* * *WE FAST-FORWARD ten years. If you'd been scurrying down the Rue de la Place in the village on a frosty night towards the end of January you could be forgiven for raising an eyebrow, maybe wiggling a finger in your ear to make sure you were hearing correctly, perhaps stealing a glance through gaps in the curtains. Intrigued by glimpses of what was afoot inside, you might have tried the door and, finding it unlocked, just slipped inside, maybe with the same wild surmise as stout Cortes on a peak in Darien, or the children in the Narnia books when they first took themselves through the wardrobe into a new and extraordinary land.
You would have found a magnificent Burns Supper in full swing, a wonderful testament to the wholehearted generosity of our Scottish hosts. Everything was there, kilts, bagpipes, whisky, recitations, haggis, all the trimmings, and a company of about 30 mostly composed of Scots, French and English, with a little exotic flavouring unexpectedly added by guests from Switzerland and Antigua.
Of the fare on offer I really couldn't say which item bemused, indeed utterly mystified, the non-Scots and the French particularly.
Possibly the haggis? Two noble, steaming haggis were brought forth on a lordly ashet (Scots for 'big plate', from the French 'assiette') and were paraded twice round the table, preceded by Archie the piper, while the company stood respectfully. Our kilted host pronounced the famous address and at the critical moment plunged an immense knife into the sweltering chieftains o' the puddin'-race, despatching them with the grace and determination of a practised matador or Aztec sacrificial priest. But was there a hidden agenda here? Dead haggis tell no tales: our host, renowned as the actor portraying Scotland's top TV policeman when he isn't filming in Pirates of the Caribbean, had flown in the previous day with haggis secreted among his personal effects, fearful that the tap on the shoulder from suspicious airport security staff might come at any moment. And 'haggis smuggler' wouldn't look too good on the CV of one who is the very persona of respect for the law north of the Border.
Or was it the dancing, played for by Archie the piper? One or two French took the floor, literally, I'm afraid, for the Gay Gordons (not a very challenging dance, it has to be said) and sat out the Dashing White Sergeant and Strip the Willow in the first aid tent. Archie the piper, curiously, holds no mysteries here in the south of France. A well-known expat of many years' standing, he has formed his own multi-national pipe band, called Claymore Clan. They play at village festivals and Scots-themed events. They're very popular. One of their most endearing features is that one of their pipers, having no sporran, slings a simple leather handbag belonging to his wife round his middle. It comes to the same thing, I suppose.
The recitations? Here some quarter was allowed, thanks to Archie, who produced a book of translations of some the better-known Burns poems: for those present unable to make head or tail of 'My love is like a red, red rose That's newly sprung in June' became 'Mon amour est une rose, rouge, rouge Au printemps fraîchement éclose.'
But easy winner in the utter mystification stakes was a supernova luminary of Scottish television, Rhoda Macdonald. A native Gaelic speaker, very likely the first ever in the village, she gave an absolutely stunning performance, accompanied by the occasional Caribbean Pirate on the bodhran, of one of the most curious cultural emanations ever to come out of Scotland: mouth music. When bagpipes were banned after the 1745 Jacobite Rising, there was nothing to play music for dancing. To overcome this, Gaels developed strongly rhythmic vocal patter songs that could be danced to. Rhoda gave us 'Si eilean nam bothan, nam bothan (repeated several times) . . . Bothan a bh'aig Fionnghal' (Island of the bothies, of the bothies (repeated several times) . . . Fingal's bothies). 'Bothies' I take to mean shebeens, drinking dens. H'm.
Very fittingly, we sang Auld Lang Syne at the end. As for Josephine and me, we went home having had a great time, but pondering the strange turns that living in France sometimes takes. As for the French, I don't know what impressions they'd garnered, what take on Scotland they aired the next day. But I hope it could be neatly expressed in 'Ce n'est qu'un au revoir, mes frères, ce n'est qu'un au revoir'.