Driving down through the back roads of France, I never fail to be struck by just how massive a country it is. You can literally go for miles (or kilomètres) and not see a soul. Tiny communities appear without warning, widely scattered in the vast rural countryside. Narrow streets deserted, tightly bordered by higgledy-piggledy houses with windows invariably shuttered to the outside world. A cloud of dust hanging in the air marks a distant tractor at work, the only hint of life. Fields stretch as far as the eye can see, a rich palette of colours packed full with nature’s bounty. The bright scarlet of wild poppies enhance pale golden swathes of cereal, a timeless memorial to the blood spilled for this now peaceful land. The vine-covered slopes display every verdant hue, and the vibrant yellow of hemp and sunflower adds a joyous touch against a wide canvas of the bluest sky. And everywhere you look, there’s food.
No space is wasted. Hens, geese and ducks waddle and scratch freely, plump cattle, sheep and goats graze peacefully in contenment. Woods and forest shelter plentiful game: pigeon, rabbits, pheasants and elusive deer. Scars of raw earth attest to the transient foraging of wild boar. Trees and hedges offer fruit, nuts and berries, and rivers teem with fish – food just comes up and taps you on the shoulder. It’s no wonder the French take such pleasure from dining. How different to my tiny sceptred isle, bursting at the seams with a population it can no longer sustain. It’s said that any society is only a few meals away from anarchy, but while the proud and volatile French never shy from protesting their rights, they have no fear of starvation in this abundant land.
So when a scrawny 48 kilo anglais arrives in their midst, chaos naturally ensues. Not programmed to eat multiple-course meals at set hours, I (like many Brits) graze on the hoof when prompted by a demanding stomach. Not hungry, don’t eat. This causes total bewilderment to my French friends (and I love them dearly!), but when time is as limited as mine always is down there, I don’t want to waste it sitting around eating, especially if I’m still stuffed to the gills from the previous meal. There’s no such thing as a quick snack!
This is actual heresy. Twice I was rounded up from the flight line where I was happily filling my camera with unique and wonderful rotorcraft, and herded protesting to the dining table to fill my poor tum instead. Five courses halfway through the day when temperatures were hovering around the high end of the twenties was more than I could – er – stomach. Consequently when corralled for the evening meal, I just couldn’t manage another morsel. Quelle horreur! This was beyond all comprehension bless them, they just didn’t understand. Was I ill? Did I not like what was on offer? Would I prefer to have something else cooked? Some cheese then? Perhaps a slice of apple tart? I absolutely know they meant well, but it was relentless. It was mealtime – how could I possibly not want to eat?
The last day of my stay before heading north coincided with a large family function, a feast to which I was also kindly invited. Not wishing to intrude and having been under their feet for two weeks already, I thought to slip away early and leave them in peace while I spent the precious final day with my gyroplane. Caught in the act of escape that morning, I was actually pursued down the length of the driveway by a frowning countenance scolding me not only for missing breakfast, but declining to take half the contents of the fridge with me for lunch! Munching a snack with one hand while engaging in something more useful with the other is a totally alien concept to my friends, and I – their only experience of a captive anglais – am disturbingly alien at times.
Eating in France is a very sociable affair. Everyone gathers round à la table for several hours to share the pleasures of dining – and to which I conform to please for most of the time. While they really appreciate their food and make great effort over the most casual meal, that’s not to accuse them of gluttony in any way, shape or form. It’s just a very different culture to the heathen British, whose idea of a picnic is a packet of supermarket sandwiches and maybe a bag of crisps, washed down with a can of pop. After 14 years, I’m still amazed by the amount of food we routinely hike up a Pyrenee as my biannual treat when visiting the gyro club. It seems absurd to my culinary-uncultured English mind to haul the weight of a large loaf, boiled eggs, lettuce, shredded carrot, sardines, cheeses, tomatoes, ham, sausage, cake, biscuits, pots of yoghurt or crème dessert – and don’t forget the two bottles of wine, flask of coffee and two bottles of water! Cups, plates, cutlery and condiments are crammed into any remaining corner and lugged up a mountain for an average three and a half hour trek by the four (and occasionally five) participants. The first time I helped them pack for a pique-nique, I genuinely thought they were joking. To be fair, on the last hike they did limit themselves to one bottle of wine. Like I said, I love these guys! Scrambling up a Pyrenee aching in every limb to feast beside a thundering waterfall of purest melted snow – in an avalanche zone with several hundred tons of rock poised overhead – it really puts life into perspective. I wouldn’t miss it for the world.
Great friends, I’m so lucky. They are comical though, and no doubt I unwittingly am as equally entertaining to them. The opportunities for misunderstanding are endless, especially with the strong regional accent which I’ve now learned to differentiate from the northern tones of my audio language lessons. In one particular instance, I was slightly confused by Pierre inquiring if I ate mice, as he proffered a rumpled paper bag. All became clear as he unfolded the top to reveal not a seething mass of rodents, but a wealth of crimson cherries freshly gathered from his garden. To me it sounded like souris, when he was actually saying cerises. It’s a minefield! The boot was firmly on the other foot one evening, when two pals dissolved into laughter after asking me what I was doing outside the hangar. I was sure I had replied correctly that I was watching the bats (chauve-souris), but what they heard was not bats – but chaud-souris – hot mice! It just adds to the fun.
A breathalyser is kept at the gyro club to be produced before heading home of an evening, should the conviviality have surpassed itself. Often they have to wait around and drink coffee for a bit until the levels of alcohol subside. Jean Marie was among those who failed the test one evening after an impromptu session, although none of them were drunk by any means. After half an hour of coffee, he was still considerably over the limit and it was already past midnight – so he handed me the keys. Me who doesn’t drink, but me with no insurance for his vehicle, and me who had only driven a left-hand drive very briefly once before. Despite being half asleep and unsuccessfully (yet repeatedly!) trying to change gear with the window winder, we made it home through the dark at snail’s pace, remarkably unscathed. I was more of a liability than he was, but the logic was exquisite.
I never hoped to find the same camaraderie and grass roots gyroplane enthusiasm again after St Merryn was stolen, but the lovely folk of Bois de la Pierre have accepted us unconditionally which I find extremely touching. It’s an absolute privilege to be with them.
And never fear – they always get their own back!