The French have a charming idiosyncrasy – actually, they have many but not all are charming – of informing you of the village or town which you have just passed through by naming it on a sign by the road with a red line crossed through it. This is specifically aimed at the British motorist who cannot stop himself uttering an oath as his wife blinks at the map. He then causes havoc to local traffic by executing a hazardous U turn to find his way back to the missed destination, the first ten yards of which (I beg your pardon, I mean dix metres) on the wrong side of the road. Sometimes the crossed out sign catches the British motorist by surprise, blissfully unaware that he has passed through any sort of habitation. He cannot remember even seeing a building. So it is as well to define our terms before we go any further. In the same way you take care when ordering your steak in France – not all that advisable, as they don’t hang their beef in France – you have to understand that medium-rare does not mean the same as it does in England and to our eyes, a village in France is no more than a hamlet.
We have all done it, haven’t we – stepped out of the car, stretched a sore back and wondered where everybody is. The place is deserted. If it is in the middle of summer and the sun is beating down mercilessly, we can understand why the inhabitants are indoors, sheltering behind closed shutters. But it is the same in winter. Villages in France are eerily quiet. You tell yourself that France is a big country, about twice the size of England, with more or less the same size population so it stands to reason that fewer people are about, especially in the more rural areas. But then, on market days, feast days, Bastille Day, holidays, concerts, Sunday Mass, the inhabitants emerge and you are surprised how many there are.
Many of the villages which you pass through on your journey – as opposed to the old neighbourhoods off the beaten track – are beautifully manicured and lovingly maintained. There are artfully designed traffic-calming measures, tasteful squares, artistic roundabouts and often a complexe sportif the envy of any sports club in England. Rarely teeming with activity either. Of course it is the knee-jerk reaction of the cynical Englishman to observe that we, the Brits, are paying for all this civic improvement through our contributions to the EU budget but that may be facile; even if true, you could hardly say the money is being wasted. A few of our towns and villages could do with a bit of civic pride and financial ‘re-allocation’.
But it is in the more isolated communities I think you can detect the beating heart of rural France. For there is a beating heart, however much the closed shutters and deserted streets may suggest otherwise. You just have to look more closely. I have a theory that may or may not hold water – the French are not great gardeners. That is, their garden, in front or at the back of their property, does not hold the same allure to its owner as their counterparts in England. The English country garden is lovingly tended – and attended, as soon as the sun pokes through the clouds – whereas the French garden usually consists of a patch of scrubby grass and a bit of perfunctory vegetation behind an iron gate. Walk along any village street in England and there are plenty of people bent over their flowerbeds who will straighten up and exchange a word or two about the weather. The French are otherwise engaged. Besides, they don’t talk much about the weather. Local politics is more their bag.
With good reason. In England, a town mayor has little more than an honorary and ceremonial function; in France, even the mayor of the smallest village wields enormous power. He holds the strings of a considerable purse of public funds and as such his post is much sought after. There are undoubtedly many honest and community-minded mayors but it is well known there are plenty who are less scrupulous. Thus local gossip more often than not circles around what a corrupt mayor we have or what a splendid job he’s doing, depending on who you voted for. It’s a double-edged sword. On the one hand, you can see the benefits of local councillors spending money on local projects; on the other hand, white elephants and vainglorious projects abound.
Every village has a church, which always admits a visit. Catholic of course, festooned and decorated, so unlike our bare, austere traditional places of worship, but as is the case of much of Western Europe these days, sapped of a viable congregation. Priests too are in short supply so mass is parcelled around the different parishes in the diocese. The bells usually ring out for the Angelus though, even if it is pre-recorded and works to a timer. There is the obligatory hairdresser’s parlour in every village, behind a frayed and faded net curtain and under a flickering neon sign. One emporium in a village we visited rejoiced in the rather splendid name of Fany Coiffure. The inhabitants looked at me oddly as I surreptitiously took a photo. If the village is extant, there will be a boulangerie, a cliché that never fails to keep on giving. French bread does not keep so everybody traipses down the road to get a baguette twice a day. And the villagers really do potter along on their velos, always helmetless, with a baguette tucked under their arm. No strings of onions hanging from the handlebars; that image belongs strictly to ‘Allo Allo’. A stereotype that does still prevail in some places is the bread van, screeching round the corner, klaxon blaring, for housewives to emerge from their kitchens to buy their bread and exchange gossip.
The weekly market is when the place comes alive. Some are half-hearted affairs, with a handful of stalls selling tat, but other villages make it a point of honour to out-do their rivals. There must be a travelling group of traders, hawkers and sellers that visit each village in turn. I guess they are all known to, and keep an eye out for, each other - a sort of wandering community, if you like. Gosh it must be a hard life though, especially in winter when the tourists have gone home. Their clientele is interesting and always bears close inspection. First impression is that there is little or no public eating on view; so different from any high street in British towns, where everybody seems to have his snout in some sort of takeaway trough. Furthermore – and maybe as a consequence – there is less obesity than back home. By and large, the French dress casually but smartly, once again a sharp contrast to the average string-vested, combat-shorted, shaven-headed, heavily-tattooed Brit. Generally speaking, the French are better looking too. I don’t know who it was that called us ‘the mongrel race’ but he was not far off the truth. At one market, I watched a slim, elegant, attractive woman, no longer in the first flush of youth but full of sex appeal nonetheless (how odd that the French use the same compound word – you would have thought that the people who invented the look would have their own word for it) selling baskets. How many baskets did she sell while I was idling away my time as my wife fait les courses? Not one. Eventually, she’d had enough. Some stallholders were of the same view and were packing up. She disappeared, having entrusted the safety of her stock to her neighbour. Five minutes later, a battered silver Citroen van, tyres squealing, emerged from around the corner and with admirable skill and elan reversed through stalls and tables to back up on to her emplacement. Nonchalantly, a fag hanging rakishly from her lips, she climbed down from the driver’s seat and within a further ten minutes all her stock had been loaded onto the van, the cigarette now burnt down to its stub without having once been removed from her mouth. With another cloud of burning rubber, a shout of farewell and a wave to her friends, she was gone. Quel style!
That is another difference I notice between village life in England and France. In England, all the pensioners, retired people, senior folk and old-timers drive at a funereal pace; in France everybody drives like a madman. The police are notable by their absence, that is until you have a prang, and if your number plate is British, they’re all over you like a rash. Les flics can be a bit off hand but so can the boys in blue back home if they don’t take to you. The overwhelming impression I have of the French people is how polite they are. Providing you don’t bray at them in cod French, or even worse, in louder and louder English, as some visitors embarrassingly do, they always respond to a request, a greeting, an apology with cheerful bonhomie. In England, strangers pass you in the street with face averted; in France it is de rigueur to offer polite salutation. Usually they don’t bat an eyelid when I mix up my bonjours with my bonsoirs and my bonnes nuits in a blind panic. And like the poor linguist I am, it took me weeks to realise that bonne journee did not mean ‘have a safe journey’.
One final observation of life in rural France. I was unaware that my English education had furnished me with totally the wrong history syllabus. I had no idea that the Second World War had been won single-handedly by Charles de Gaulle, with some help from his brave fellow Frenchmen. Attend any memorial service by the War Memorial in the village and you will be disabused of the myth that the British had anything to do with it. Les Americains might have had a walk-on part but the Brits were too busy at home drinking tea. As a French friend of mine always says when reminded of the Battle of Waterloo, “Waterloo – what eez that? Never ‘eard of it. Eh bien, it eez a station, no?”