LA VIE EN FRANCE/LIFE IN FRANCEWe ask a lot of our holidays.
We tend to overburden them with our expectations; we ask them too many questions and we give them far too much to do. Some psychologists have even ventured to suggest that desperation to ‘get away’ on holiday is an unhealthy symptom of the kind of lives that so many people are forced to live; that it is a very real need to ‘escape’ best met not by going on holiday but by actually escaping altogether.
For me, this theory is confirmed when I think of the type of people who say, casually and calmly, that they ‘haven’t been on holiday for years’. They are usually the people who have enjoyable and rewarding jobs and perfectly happy home lives. No escape is necessary.
For almost everyone else, though, a couple of weeks away on holiday is the pivot around which their lives revolve. It’s the time to step off the daily grind and flee - usually overseas.
And in those precious few days, lots of holiday boxes have to be ticked.
- most people normally crave some sunshine - for which our unbronzed northern European bodies are usually crying out;
- we need plenty of ‘do-nothing‘ time, too; time when all the everyday pressure of ‘getting and spending‘ is turned down, even if just a little;
- many of us want to try and meet a few local people as well; trying to converse across the barrier of mutually unintelligible languages is usually enough to break the ice and get everyone smiling;
- we need to ‘see the sights’; towns and cities, villages and countryside, beaches and mountains, buildings great and small;
- for many holiday-makers, a touch of edgy adventure, a hint of the unfamiliar and the challenging, adds zest to our time away from the daily, predictable grind;
- we also like to ‘let our hair down’ on holiday; we want to do things we don’t normally do - perhaps explore a little ‘nightlife’ before we go home to our slippers and pipe (so to speak).
- and, if we’re sensible, we also want to try some local food and drink in order to give our taste buds and digestive systems something to remember the holiday for, too.
It’s hardly surprising, then, that so many of us feel a little short-changed when we get home. The holiday was ‘nice’, yes, but it wasn’t at all what we cracked it up to be. There is a sense of anti-climax; a feeling that we only just started to scratch the surface of our time away when it was time to pack up and come home.
All this is to say that I know very well how unusual my own life has been this last year or so. I have been given the opportunity (and the means) to spend a lot of time in France - not as a holiday-maker but almost as a resident there. I have been able to achieve what so many frustrated vacationers only dream of; to spend long periods of time ‘going native’ - learning the language, lazily exploring the countryside, getting used to the local diet, adapting to a different climate, discovering what the French are really like (notwithstanding the perhaps understandable animosity so many English people feel).
Very few people get the chance to do what I have been able to do; to spend time in a foreign country and not simply be on holiday there. And believe me, I know how lucky I am. Every time I visit Beaujolais, I am aware of the great good fortune that enables me to be there so often and for so long. And I try not to waste it.
One of the things I’ve made it my business to understand is the strength of French local tradition - largely, I suppose, because of the many north-east England traditions still going strong after many centuries. The recent egg-rollings and jarpings at Penshaw Hill (and some other places); the Shrove Tuesday football games in Alnwick and Sedgefield; the tar-barrel ceremonies in Allendale Town and Whalton; mayor-making in Durham City. I’m sure you can think of many more.
I am, for example, drafting this posting on May Day. In Beaujolais, May Day is forever associated with muguets, lily-of-the-valley. Children carry sprays of this delightful flower around with them all day, offering to sell you some for a few centimes - in much the same way as ours used to ask for ‘a penny for the guy’ on the days leading up to 5 November. Lily-of-the-valley is so much ‘nicer’ than a stuffed guy representing an executed traitor, don’t you think?
Naturally, Easter too is celebrated differently. On Easter Day families and friends gather together for a special, all-day party. Each person is given a large, fish-shaped cake made of a kind of soft shortbread and studded with almonds. A hard-boiled egg with the recipient’s name written on it sits atop the cake, and this, in turn, is surmounted by a pastry cross. You can see them in all their Gallic glory in the photos above.
But, for me at least, the most colourful tradition in Beaujolais - and in a few other areas of France, is les conscrits - the ‘conscripts’.
This is not as martial as it sounds. At least, not now - although its origins are very martial indeed.
Les conscrits is of fairly recent origin. In fact, it can be traced back precisely to a particular date and a particular village in Alsace.
During the First World War, Frenchmen (like men elsewhere) were called up according to their age. In one village in 1916, all the lads who had been conscripted decided to have a big, pre-Army celebration before they went to war. Naturally, they were all the same age - 17. And that’s how les conscrits started.
These ‘last night of freedom‘ parties spread rapidly across central and eastern France, each one attended by lads of the same age. Soon they were forming themselves into unofficial groups of ‘pals’, much as many of our soldiers did at the time.
And from these humble and inauspicious beginnings developed a pleasingly complex system of formalised local groups, membership of which depends entirely on how old you are - just as in that original Alsatian shindig in 1916.
It works like this. Everyone of the same age can join - but so can people whose age ends with the same number. So you can join, say, the 4 conscrit if you are 24, 34, 44, 54…..and so on. And, of course, there are conscrits for each year of a decade, from 0 to 9. Because I am 62, I would join the 2 conscrit whose members’ ages would all end in 2.
One of the gratifying side-effects of les conscrits is that they are cross-generational. Members of my group, for example, would be 22, 32, 42, 52, 62, 72 or even (if they’re lucky) 82, 92 or 102 years old. I admire the French for the many ways they have of bringing the generations together to enjoy themselves.
When they foregather (which they do - a lot), each group or classe, sports its own colour-coded ribbon attached to top hats. In the photographs below, all the menfolk enjoying themselves so hugely are in my classe - they were all born in a year ending in 8. I know this because their top-hat ribbons are blue.
I think the bouquets are a nice touch, don’t you?
I hope you’re getting all this.
I say that because it’s taken me a whole year to understand the system, and I’m still not entirely sure that I’m right. Understanding the system is, however, compulsory in Beaujolais, where the conscrits tradition is very strong indeed. The nearest town to my village is Villefranche-sur-Saone and, for one day every January, it is completely taken over by les conscrits - thousands of them. That’s where these photos were taken. You can see more if you Google the event.
So, if you’re ever lucky enough to be in Rhone-Alpes, Alsace or Lorraine, look out for les conscrits.
And remember, there’ll be a test on all this later….
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