Low life

40-plus reasons to love and hate France

3 November 2018

9:00 AM

3 November 2018

9:00 AM

I apologised, was gladly granted an indulgence, and on Sunday I packed a small bag and reached into a drawer for the passport. I was going back to the cave house in the Provençal village. Back to France and the French and to speaking my trousers-on-fire French. Salut! Tu vas bien? Viens m’embrasser, mon petit chou. Back to a country where, as Barbara Cartland put it, you can make love in the afternoon without people hammering on the door.

Back to village bells clanging off the hours of the day, back to early rising and trying to be witty, or at least sentient, in French with the insanely jolly woman in the village bakery at a quarter to seven in the morning. Back to the flaking morning croissant and strong coffee and eating outside — always eating eating eating. When people profess a love of France, I assume they mean a love of eating. Back to the gigantic science-fiction aloes and the mulberry tree, to the pollarded plane trees in the village square and the ornate dribbling fountain and cobbled streets and quaintly old-fashioned street lanterns.

Back to the disappointingly familiar, disappointingly limited wares in the half-dozen shops that close most afternoons and sometimes capriciously all day. Back to the fantastically rude woman in the paper shop. The uncompromising reserve of the woman in the delicatessen. The industrious, cheerful young brothers in the à la page mini-Spar where monks and nuns contemplate the frozen-food cabinet. And in the hairdressers, Elody, always laughing off her incredible sexual magnetism. The last time I was in, she summoned me into her chair with ‘Amour?’ and I almost blacked out. She broke her ankle playing football last year and the heavy plaster cast encumbering that leg turbocharged the fantasy. All the chaps looked smart last year.

Back to the perfectly maintained, perfectly smooth country roads and mental drivers pushing small, unpretentious, state-subsidised cars to their absolute limit. Back to one hairpin bend after another and the temperature gauge of my old Merc rising into the red on the climbs, and the road often an immaculate tarmac ribbon winding through miles and miles of evergreen oaks with mountains in the distance and toiling, elderly cyclists with stringy calves the only other traffic.

Back to rifle-toting hunters in mud-encrusted pick-ups, to low-flying military helicopters, to long walks in the silent, stony countryside, on stony tracks, everywhere stones, including underfoot: white, sharp, broken, destabilising stones that demand concentrated attention. Back to ranks of black leafless vines and ruined vine workers’ huts desolate in cold winter sunshine. Back to the glass of rosé at lunch, gin at six, and going out to dinner with other expats in other villages in the evenings, the conversation a series of assertions and interjections.

Or dinner sometimes in the village restaurants that stay open in winter, whose staff welcome us with kisses and a free aperitif. Back to daube and mussels and crème brûlée and artisanal pizza and young waiters who treat you with a deference to age perfectly allied with social equality, especially the waiter with the film-star looks spiritually weighed down by a faint, inch-long scar above his shoulder blade, the result of a recent minor operation. Back to the three village bars, and the professional boozers, including the suicidally drunk Geordie builder, the rascally old millionaire artist who holds court with his slavish admirers, the abnormally hairy man who looks like the Missing Link, and the only black man (a florid schizophrenic) in the otherwise racially homogenous village. In winter these bars are irritatingly closed and shuttered by nine in the evening but open again and busy at 7.30 the next morning, doing a brisk trade serving neat spirits to the wide-awake alcoholic community.

Back to the cave house in the cliff that was once a waterfall. Back to living rock instead of interior walls. Back to a double bed where you can lift your head from the pillow and see the Massif des Maures 40 miles away to the south. Back to Catriona.

I shouldered my bag, took a last look at the sea, and climbed into the taxi. The taxi took me to the station. Train to Bristol. Taxi to the hotel. Bed. Breakfast. Hotel shuttle car to the airport five minutes away. I sat in the back and checked that I had everything safe and to hand: wallet, boarding pass, passport. Check. Check. Check. I opened the passport to the photo page. The photo was of my grandson looking serious. Reaching into the drawer, I’d picked up the wrong passport. There was nothing to be done except catch the bus back to the station and go back home. There is no such thing as an accident, said Freud. All the way home I considered this statement in the light of my ridiculous mistake.

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