Image by d'Alk via FlickrThe summer visitors have left me with a pile of books...for some reason, a lot of them about expat life in France, the idealised French woman..and a swathe of tourist literature, so, having time on my hands, or more accurately, putting off doing the autumn gardening, I have been reading about my adopted country.
Hours of research over a couple of glasses of wine have convinced me that I have been living in a different country...I must have taken a wrong turning at Calais all those years ago and ended up in Khazakstan without realising. No wonder learning the language posed so many problems!
Elegant, well dressed women sipping fizzy water on cafe terraces seem to figure frequently......well, not round here, they don't. The local version of elegance is supplied by the Barbe Bleu van which makes its' monthly appearance to vend polyester to the masses, or by the supermarket special offers of stretch lycra cotton garments which should be banned in the public interest. You could lose your eyesight.
As everyone goes to the same hairdresser, everyone has the same hairstyle but in different colours. My mother, young in the twenties, has always been firmly convinced that, to judge by the shingled hairstyles, every rural French woman is a lesbian and that the choice of colour must be some sort of signal...a bit like which side some chaps wear their keys, and all that.
I think that the hairdresser having learnt only one way of doing things, does what she knows best and the colour depends on whatever special offer the rep has managed to sell her, but there's no convincing mother.
That's the elegance bit disposed of..now for the rest. Only rarely will anyone from round here drop into a cafe....they have coffee and everything else at home, so why pay for it? The cafe is a place for business discussions, a neutral ground, or a place for men to hide from their wives, nothing very social about them at all, and far from some jovial guy drying glasses behind the zinc, the proprietors tend to be morose individuals calculating how they are ever going to recuperate their taxe professionelle from the miserable crowd clutching the same glass for over an hour. It's no wonder some of them turn to other attractions to lure customers to their premises, like the one in the next village which, according to the postlady, draws a crowd even from faroff Poitiers. They certainly don't come for the ambience, that's for sure. It is a source of continuing amazement on the postlady's circuit that while the gendarmerie are busy seizing cannabis from motorists caught on checkpoints, they don't make the slightest effort to investigate that bar...mark you, they didn't want to investigate the theft of liquor from the supermarket either, but that was because they were getting a cut.
I think that it was A.A. Gill who wrote an article recently on the lines of we see what we expect to see. A French woman is supposed to be beautiful, so we think they all are. English women are supposed to be like a lot of unmade beds, so that's what we see. Well, he had better nip out to the shops round here and test his theory. There is one genetic group in particular with black -shingled - hair who all resemble boxers who had an unfortunate encounter with Henry Cooper's only known punch and another group whose features resemble nothing so much as two currants in a spotted dick. A.A. Gill, I defy you!
While there is always mention of social life in these books about expat life in France......being invited to the neighbours', going out to concerts, finding 'little' - why are they always 'little' - restaurants........they don't seem to mention the village social life at all. The football team passes them by - where do they think everyone is on Saturday afternoons? Down at the field shouting abuse at the opponents, that's where.
Then there is the inevitable yoga class and the weekly get togethers to cook, sew, make scrapbooks and once a year bully unsuspecting people into buying the results at the 'vide grenier'...car boot sale. There was once a keep fit class for pensioners in our village and it is a great pity that no one made a video as it would be a Youtube hit. Elderly gentlemen in collarless shirts, slippers and caps creaking up and down to music...all with differing rythms...uncalled for remarks as elderly ladies lifted their legs, firmly encased in elastic stockings, all of two inches from the ground, and the inevitable moment when Monsieur Chose's mother, using her zimmer frame as a barre, lashed out backwards at Monsieur Chemineau, whose dodgy knee gave way and sent him flying into the arms of the young instructress...a situation from which he was loathe to extricate himself, the whole thing a cross between Disney's Dance of the Hippopotami and the decks of the Titanic.
It was probably all banned on the grounds of moral turpitude. What was I doing there? Not participating, that's for sure...I know moral turpitude when I see it.
Though I know several expats who have joined, the books make no mention of the Old Age Pensioners' clubs either. The one in my first village had a reputation for miles around. Officially people got together one afternoon a week to play cards, knit and gossip over coffee and cakes and once a year organise an outing by coach, but when, after a murder in the village, the gendarmerie were roused to action and decided to breathalyse the participants as they made their way to their cars at the end of the afternoon, of about forty, more than thirty were over the limit for drink driving.
Clearly, I'm not living in the same country, but I just wonder about these authors of books about life in France. Don't they meet anyone except workmen, owners of chateaux or other expats? In 'little' restaurants? Where elegant women sip fizzy water at tables on the terrace?