I am very lucky at the moment to have a foot in two different countries – one in England and one in France. The contrast is made greater because my French foot is tramping in the woods and fields whereas my English foot is tapping along London pavements. Furthermore, my countryside experience in France is rather different perhaps than that of many ex-pats. Because my in-laws are French and from a tight-knit rural community, I have been granted access to a world which I suspect won’t be around for all that long in France.
So, the weekend before last I was dancing at a London party (albeit hosted by French friends) in a ‘silent disco’. I had never heard of such a thing before but apparently it is a la mode. Those who wish to dance wear enormous headphones and groove to the beat; those who don’t wish to dance watch in amusement at those who are doing some peculiar ritualistic movements usually in silence but occasionally murmuring half-learnt words or singing out of tune to something totally unrecognisable. We had walked to the party through thousands of Chelsea supporters surging towards us so it took a while. The atmosphere was, despite the fact that Chelsea had just lost at home, good: everyone seemed to be in good spirits, even smiling. And then we went beyond the blue and entered the fading light of a busy London street where I am always struck, after returning from France, by the multitude of shops selling things that we have absolutely no need of whatsoever.
And last weekend? Well, last weekend couldn’t have been more of a contrast. I went to stay with my in-laws who live in one of the ‘most beautiful villages in France’, Limeuil. It is, to use tourist-speak, a medieval village nestled at the confluence of two major rivers in the Dordogne, the Vezere and the Dordogne river itself. Built by the English and protected by an enormous wall, this important strategic village remains unchanged over the years. Etc. But of course it has changed: many of the occupants don’t even live in the village full time since it is a second home for many French and increasingly many English and Dutch. There is even an Anglican church in the village which hosts a Sunday service for the enormous British ex-pat community in the area. Once I was passing and saw well-groomed dogs and cats standing outside along with their owners. It was an animal service. The Vicar of Dibley was surely around.
But Limeuil is beautiful. The view from the castle is stunning, and the grounds of the castle, now a well-kept garden, are wonderful to explore. My in-laws have free passes to the garden and we always take visitors there. Jean-Louis loves showing my friends the wall with a 100 foot drop where he and his friends dared each other to run along, skirting the castle grounds. Given Jean-Louis is always banging his head on our beams and had a black eye from tripping over a step last weekend, I am surprised he didn’t fall off the wall as a young boy. Their house is unusual, built in the twelfth century with walls thicker than my arms and a crest above the fireplace suggesting a possible English owner although we have yet to establish much more apart from the fact that he was definitely a crusader and definitely aristocratic. My aunt, a keen genealogist, is on the case.
But Saturday night last weekend had me in Le Bugue, the nearest small town to Limeuil. It was a charity dinner but unlike charity dinners in the UK which are full of glamour and certainly advertise the charity concerned at every possible opportunity, I had little idea what the charity was other than it was for disabled children and set up some time ago. Not knowing what a French charity dinner would be like, I dressed up and as we approached the village hall, I began to realise that perhaps I was a little too dressed up. I was also a little too young, despite my middle years being very much in place. With the exception of two other couples, both of whom were at least ten years older than me, everyone else was in their seventies and upwards. The background music was bizarrely 1980s British pop and I watched the only other young person in the room twirling around oblivious to everyone else on the dance floor – an eight year old girl, with long blonde hair and the most beautiful smile.
The food, because we were in France, was delicious. Meats and salads. The wine – good enough for me – was standing in pitchers on each table, but apparently we were to buy better wine, and indeed the better wine was beyond good. Cheeses and green salad. Apple tart. Coffee. Then the DJ got onto the stage and began mixing up the sounds. 1950s accordion classics. My fellow guests buzzed and bubbled and within seconds the dancefloor was full of loving couples doing the ballroom moves. I shrank into my chair and refused all invitations to dance. Because I cannot dance to such music nor in such a way. I give most things a try but not this.
Finally it was tombola time. I was very excited about this because the prizes looked good: wine, wine, wine and then a massive leg of ham. And for the first time since I was 9 years old and I won back a doll that my mum had offered to give me for Christmas and I had refused but then fallen in love with at a fete, I won something. A bottle of fine red wine and a packet of coffee. Our table seemed rather lucky and within minutes many of my group were proudly holding their bottles. I turned around and saw a bouffant woman scowling, pointing at us and talking to her neighbour. Clearly we were cheating. I smiled at her. She looked suspiciously back. But the tables turned fast. Within a few more minutes Madame Bouffant’s friends were scooping up even better prizes: bottles of spirits, boxes of wine and pate, until she herself won the coveted prize and accepted the giant leg of meat. I went over to her and gave her a high five which she accepted. She was at least 90.
Next day, Jean-Louis was up at 6am to start the fire which would cook the sheep for the Meshwi that lunch time. It was Patrick’s 60th birthday in the summer and because he is so busy running his amazing canoeing business (if anyone ever wants to canoe as Alex and I have done along the Dordogne, speak to me first), the party was postponed until October. Alain a friend and local farmer provided the sheep, Jean-Louis the preparation and the cooking. Last time we did a Meshwi he lost his wedding ring somehow in the meat. This year he got his black eye but kept his other rings. He had spent the week taking out the innards of the sheep, stuffing it with goodies, and marinating it. Now it was the time to eat.
The weather was beautiful. We were hot. Jean-Louis was wearing his apron and his special almost-beret cap. Everyone had made something for a starter: local French cuisine at its best. There were at least thirty of us and they have all known each other for years: nearly all of them have grown up in the area and those who haven’t have become absolutely integral to the working of the community. There were quite a few farmers there (tobacco, kiwis, walnuts, livestock), the former village patissier who makes the best tarts I have ever tasted, the previous mayor of the village, many of his political team from before. I was the only English. And as such I was mocked for England’s failure to remain in the Rugby World Cup which England itself was hosting. I was punished by being forced to watch France play and lose but when I kept pointing this out in a ridiculous counter-move, I was reminded that France were still in the World Cup despite its loss whereas England was not.
I feel so privileged to be living here in France and to be invited to such events. I am always welcomed and feel accepted for who I am. It helps that Alex’s parents are hugely loved by the village and are incredibly warm and gregarious. I feel frustrated sometimes that my French isn’t up to giving the retorts that my mockers sometimes deserve but it is getting better even if Alex’s dad insists on teaching me the local dialect which is not that helpful elsewhere in the country.
In two weeks I change shoes and walk the London pavements again. And because I live elsewhere most of the time I see London, where I grew up, with different eyes now. I love it. But I am glad I have my house in France.