LIFE IN FRANCE: THE LIZARD AND THE WALNUT TREE
Even by truckshunter standards, this blogposting is a little bit special. It’s the first one I’ve drafted and posted online from France.
It’s Saturday 17 July and I’m in central eastern France - in Beaujolais country a mile or two west of the River Saone. The nearest big town - and it is very big - is Lyon, off to the south. Much nearer and much prettier, and to the north, is Macon. I’m about as far south of Paris as London is from Newcastle.
In the near distance to the west, and clearly visible from the garden here where I’m sitting, are the blue, vineyard-covered hills of Beaujolais. Much closer are the red-tiled roofs of the nearby village, although the house itself stands quite alone, surrounded by fields of maize, sunflowers or lettuces. There is a small herd of Charolais cattle grazing in the field opposite and beyond the trees I can see a row of stumpy brown beehives.
Next to me, and bordered by cobbles, is a small goldfish pond. Six fish - and two noisy frogs - live there. The pond features a rather lovely ornamental Japanese fountain and is shaded by a low-growing St John’s Wort covered in small, vivid yellow flowers. Behind it runs the little River Vauxonne, which forms the southern edge of the garden.
Behind me, and shading me nicely from the midday French sun, is a huge and ancient bay tree from whose branches hang baskets of flowers. Looking up, I can see, in the opposite corner of the garden, a tall and graceful walnut tree whose age, beauty and fruitfulness have become something of a legend round here.
It’s a lovely, warm and sunny day. A light breeze is wafting birdsong, and the soft murmur of grasshoppers and crickets, across the garden. Butterflies of at least half a dozen different types - most of them totally unfamiliar to me - are flapping their way around the roses, firethorns, geraniums, hebes and many other flowers that adorn this typical rural French garden at this time of year.
Once in a while, a small lizard dashes across the terrace, almost too fast to see.
If all this makes this little corner of France sound somewhat idyllic, then I guess it is. Right now, there’s nowhere I’d rather be. And that’s not just because of the weather and the scenery. It’s also because I’ve had an extraordinary few days...
The week was centred on Wednesday, 14 July which was, of course, Bastille Day - France’s National Day. Every year on this day, there are great parades and marches and salute-takings and flag-wavings in Paris. This year, the President (the much-loathed M Sarkozy) took centre-stage as the whole nation watched and smiled wryly as the rain poured down and flooded the capital’s self-righteous partying.
There’s nothing self-righteous about the way Bastille Day is celebrated in deepest, rural France, though. Outside Paris, July 14 becomes an unselfconscious party where everyone joins in. And the party starts as soon as work ends the day before.
I spent Bastille Eve (as it were) in a small town called Thoissey. Well actually, it’s more of a large village than a small town. The little crossroads of streets which forms the ‘town centre‘ had been coned off for the duration so that ‘the people‘ could begin their celebrations. Two small stages with ludicrously sophisticated sound-systems were set up in each street and, at about 9 in the evening, the party began.
As I said just now, Bastille Day is a day for everyone - every member of France’s larger family. Like the French flag, Bastille Day has not been hijacked by rabid ‘France for the French’ right-wingers, unlike (perhaps) the English flag has at home.
People from every francophone country in the world are happy to join in with The Marseillaise on July 14.
Another deeply satisfying aspect of this town-wide Bastille Eve bash was the mixing of the generations. Whole families, from grandparents to babes-in-arms, were out enjoying the party. Outsiders like me were made especially welcome, as the many photos of me being drunkenly embraced by various members of the Thoissey citizenry testify.
I should say, in their defence, that I was just as drunk as they were.
The bars and cafes (all four of them) stayed open as long as they had customers to serve. And, at least partly because the bands on stage that night were quite good (specially after a glass or two of Provencal rose), that meant that the party was still going strong when we left at about 2 in the morning.
The generations mixing together socially and thoroughly enjoying themselves is not, of course, restricted to Bastille Day. It is a regular aspect of French daily life which differs greatly from our recent experience at home in England.
For a start, almost every village - no matter how small - has a primary school. And no-one would dare suggest closing any of them, for financial or any other reason.
Secondary schools are also intensely local. The local village here, with a population of less than 4,000, supports a large and thriving secondary school. No youngster ever has to travel far from home to get to school because school is almost always right there on the doorstep. (The ‘school run’, incidentally, is almost unheard of.)
One of the happy results of all this is that a French person’s sense of ‘place’ is very strong. As they grow up, French kids don’t seem to hanker after the bright lights and big cities to nearly the same extent as their English oppos. They seem to be quite happy rooted to their villages and small towns. As I’ve discovered, this can sometimes distort their view of the ‘outside world’, which may begin as close as the next village. But that’s another story....
It’s probably because the Bastille Eve street-celebrations are so raucous and hangover-inducing that most French people seem to spend July 14 itself rather quietly and sedately. They go for walks or drive into the surrounding countryside and have a picnic in the recovery position.
That’s what we did, too.
And in the evening, we went to see a surprisingly ambitious fireworks display laid on by a local village.
Most countries seem to have a National Day like this and I’ve spent much of the rest of this week wondering what the English would do if we had one. There are campaigns running with just such an aim; the favourite day seems to be April 23, St George’s Day.
But I’ve wondered if the sense of ‘nation’ is as strong in England as it is here in France, and if our national day’s alcohol consumption would induce the inter-generational exuberance and joy it does here - or just another drunken town-centre brawl from which everyone over 30 stays away...
I’ve just been offered a glass of icetea - it’s very popular here. Delicious and cheap!
And a frog has just plopped into the fishpond.
So I’ll stop now. I’ll need to allow myself time to post the blog and add the photos.
And anyway, I’m feeling a little sorry for myself. Tomorrow once again I’ll be making my way home to England....
I think I know my native country very well and love it as much as anyone. And, like anyone who is homeward bound, I know it will be good to return to all those familiar things about 'home' which we often don't appreciate until they are far away from us.
But until I come back here again, there will be a small sadness in a corner of my heart for this little garden I have grown to love so much. For Mumun the cat curled up in the shade, for the roses and the river, for the lizard and the walnut tree.