Sunday, 18 November 2012

How the French “party”


Much is made of the divide between the English and the French. To be honest, my personal experience of the phenomenon reveals it’s the English that are to blame not the French. Personally I can’t understand why anyone would want to live somewhere if they didn’t want to embrace the local community and culture. To consider “living there” tantamount to accosting all the local English people and creating a ”Little England” mentality by surrounding yourself with no one else but your kinsman is in my opinion ludicrous  !!. Having droves of English friends that you are only drawn to because they speak your language is, I have to say fraught with problems. I mean would they be your choice of buddies at home? Probably not,after all if the average English populous were so bloody marvellous I for one wouldn’t have spent the last 20 years hiding from them in the happy shiny land that we call AGILITY…inhabited by like minded folk who DO give a shit about me and with whom I can carry on a halfway decent conversation without reaching for the nearest loaded gun.

So what is MY experience of the inhabitants? Well take the other day, Dominique our French friend (brother in law to Marie-Claude our original next door neighbour) was back from Bordeaux where he works these days. We had told him that we would be around for 7 weeks so we hoped he would come back into the area prior to our return to the UK so we could catch up. To clarify  in the last 8 years we have never encountered a French person who speaks fluent English, all our neighbours speak a little gleaned from school 40 years ago like my French, or none. So an ability to sport a smile, a dictionary, a good sense of humour and perform a passable Charade is a MUST. But remember this is a two way street, so do French people flock together and exclude the Brits ??? Do they heck. !!

Contact from Dominique was short and succinct. Meet me at the Intermarche Supermarket at St Amant de Boixe at 10 am on Sunday we're are having an Eclat. Fine, rendez-vous established…..Richard to me “What’s an Eclat? “ Me to Richard, after looking in a dictionary “It’s a bursting”….Richard to me “WTF” or similar.

In the meantime a close friend from England who we had always asked to pop over did just that. Sent text to Dominique explaining, reply, bring him along. So on Sunday we set off for the village of St Amant de Boixe, met with Dominique and disappeared down into Centre Ville to shop at the outdoor market and go to a Bar/Tabac for coffee. The market was a typical French affair, wine,cheese,fruit,veg,honey,meats all locally produced and sold in the usual haphazard, relaxed,sqeeze it, smell it, taste it, shopping experience by two shopkeepers and a fabulous looking merle collie boy who didn’t seem to care if I didn’t speak French either. Nobody formed a queue of any description, no-one tutted, pushed, barged, or stormed off despite the fact that the simple procuring of a half dozen items took about 30 minutes !!. Next to the bar/ tabac for an Espresso, a bet on the gee gees and an opportunity to take in the feel of France on a Sunday. Every single generation was accounted for. Dad’s out with their under fives giving mums a well deserved Sunday morning rest, couples, youth groups and pensioners. No raised voices, tears tantrums just the gentle hubbub of general conversation. We sat by the door….SO obviously English I felt like I wanted to hide yet everybody coming in and going out the door said hello. We were watched with curiosity but never disdain and when we rose to leave were wished a good day by all.  
  
With that we were then taken to a town house close by. Greeted by the lady of the house,who was, I later learnt a Granny and yet looked so young and chic I could have poked her eyes out. We were lead through to the back garden, a back garden that was full of French folk young and old who greeted and kissed us in true French tradition and we saw… wait for it……..A table……A HUGE table surrounded by many hands hard at work.

Rather than try and describe the next two hours …. I will lay it down in pictures…..save to say we were treated to the most unbelievable traditional experience, the centrepiece being 15 kilogrammes of Mussels cooked in a most “original” fashion.


3 nails are hammered into the table, then mussels are “placed” with acute precision, having been selected and their beards removed (and any discarded that weren't up to scratch) This selection process interesting enough performed by the elders in the assembled group. The mussels begin to form a circle.

 The process takes a long time, as the circle grows to over a metre, but thankfully there are “refreshments” provided….for those that aren't designated drivers like me.  

Once the circle is complete it is covered in pine needles....cones and all !!

 A portion of the circle is covered in fig leaves underneath the pine needles as this creates a different flavour
Much discussion,(and alcohol ) is needed to assure correct placement of the  needles

Then you set fire to it !!!


At full flame water is poured on the perimeter to stop the table going up !!

Buckets at the ready !!

When the fire dies out (when all the needles are burnt) a card is used to fan away the ash

The lovely hostess, (the Granny,don't say i didn't tell you) arrives with rustic bread  and the feast begins.
Tradition at this point dictates that you rub your hands in the wet ash and plaster your  guests with it !!  Thats fun  if not somewhat mucky
Then you drink some more and sing a variety of  revolution anthems and football songs.

  

      At that point I left the party for a hour to pop back to the cottage to let the dogs out, leaving Richard and our friend to fend for themselves not realizing that I was still covered in soot as I walked back through the packed village square....Oops !!!     In my absence the "serious" eating and drinking started, apparently the moule were just the appetizers.  When I returned they had worked their way through the cold meats,jugged hare, pasta salads and rice and were stuck into a phenomenal array of desserts (the French masterpieces) flans,tarts and pastries......glad I made it back just in time. !!!  

Next the almost obligitory, boule de petanque which is taken with upmost seriousness and competitiveness whenever played. I myself have had some previous experience and success in the beloved French sport so was looking forward to being paired with a Frenchman to excel at one of their native games....... or so I thought. Colour me totally surprised when confronted with SQUARE boules !!!!!!!! Apparently historically when the playing surface is a "courtyard" not hard dirt ,gravel or grass, the square pieces allow the games to be played whereas round balls would render it impossible....who knew ??? I still got to the quarter finals but ultimately the finals became a French affair.

So there we have it.....A party that started at 10.30 and ran well past 6.30 pm which was when we stole ourselves away. Unique and priceless memories to join our countless other French experiences and THAT my friends is why I will keep hanging out with "le fran├žais" as long as they will have me !!