And then, all of a sudden…he’s yesterday’s news…a warm-up act…getting second billing. More about him later.
Today….we write about France. We spent the summer there, as we’ve done for the last 27 years. We don’t write about it often; it has become too familiar.
Is that true of other things? Do deficits become so habitual that they are scarcely worth mentioning? Are US politicians so preternaturally stupid and dishonest that there is no longer any point in saying so?
Friction is painful to the tender, innocent hand. Later, after the calluses appear, the hand feels nothing.
Nevertheless, we pass along this recollection of last weekend’s going away party…marking the end of our stay in France. It is a reminder of the ‘social challenges’ faced by outsiders in rural France.
The main characters…
Our gardener, a willing worker, Damien is more like an old-fashioned ‘retainer’ than an employee. He comes with the property. He keeps an eye on it. And treats it as if it were his own. Which is the problem. For a gardener, he has an amazing contempt for plants. Unless restrained, he will mow down the flowers, spray herbicide on the remainder…and salt the earth.
‘Damien, where did you get Round-Up,’ we asked. ‘Hasn’t it been banned?’
‘Yes…but I have friends.’
A cigarette almost permanently affixed to his mouth…he is ready for any project, no matter how hard. But he likes company and much prefers to work with us, rather than for us.
This summer, for example, we began building a modern (well insulated, heated) apartment in one of the outbuildings. In winter, our old, rambling house is almost impossible to heat. The windows rattle. The ceilings are high. There is no insulation, anywhere. And in the shoulder seasons, it is often uncomfortably cold, but not worth firing up the massive, whole-house furnace.
So, Damien and your editor have spent many happy weekends on the apartment project — a little ‘pied a terre’ in the heart of La France Profonde.
Damien is a master at local arts and crafts — such as making various forms of alcohol out of the native fruits. He is also a walking thesaurus of gallic curse words, which he puts together in lavish and original combinations.
‘Putain de merde!’ [we will not translate]…he blurts out when something doesn’t go exactly as planned. Unfortunately for Damien, but happily for the thesaurus, things often don’t go as planned. Because Damien lacks patience. He works fast and tries to solve all problems by increasing the amount of force. Is a nail crooked? Hit it harder! Is the tractor reluctant to pick up a trash bin? Give it more gas! Does a tree limb get in his way? Cut it down!
‘Why did you cut the tree down,’ we ask?
‘Ca m’a fait chier,’ he replies (again, no translation is needed).
After so many years with such a gardener on the job, our property is practically a wasteland. But we can’t part with Damien’s colourful presence; he is as much a part of the place as the surviving oaks and old gables.
Far from the Madding Crowd
Along with Damien, at the dinner was his longtime friend and sidekick, Mickey (MeeKay). Both men are lifelong bachelors. Neither likes anything that gets in the way — neither of his work nor of his leisure. The friend is wiry…retired on disability from the post office.
The ‘vacher’ — Patrice, 62 years old — tends the farm’s cattle. He has one bad knee already and another one going fast. He is on leave from his job. One knee took a year to fix. The other one will take the next year. Most likely, he will never come back to work.
The owner of the cattle — Pierre — is the last of five generations to till the local soil; he can barely wait to retire and leave.
There was also a woman of about our age, Chantal, who pays the bills when we are gone. Charming and friendly, she is our source of local intel — news, gossip, social knowhow…and it was she who connected us to the local fuddy-duddy set when we arrived.
And Valerie — cheerful and attractive — comes in a couple times a week to tidy up.
It was a jolly group…along with wives, children, husbands…and people of uncertain connection.
We convened about 6pm near the old ‘orangerie’ (greenhouse) for an ‘apero’ — drinks and hors d’oeuvres — white wine, punch, champagne…along with pate on toast.
The vacher brought us up to date on his knees.
‘Oh, his knees,’ said his wife. ‘You must be tired of hearing about them. The worst thing is that he is in the house all the time…driving himself…and me…both crazy.’
‘Beautiful weather…warm…dry,’ said Pierre, looking on the bright side of a severe drought.
‘How was the hunt last week,’ we asked? A group of hunters had assembled outside the gates. They were gunning for ‘sanglier,’ (wild boar). Usually, when they get one or more, they put a substantial cut of meat in our freezer to thank us for letting them hunt on our land. We saw nothing in the freezer and guessed that the hunt hadn’t gone well.
‘Henri (a neighbour) got a shot,’ Pierre explained. ‘I think he wounded the animal, but we couldn’t find him.’
(The next day, Henri clarified: ‘I shot him in the jaw. Jean-Paul got off another shot that got him in the shoulder. But he didn’t fall. We looked for him…but there was no sign of him.’
‘Then, almost unbelievably, I got a call late in the evening. It was my neighbour. He said there was a wounded sanglier in the field in front of my house. I went out with my rifle. I found him. Alive, but barely. I knew it was the same animal, because he had been shot in the mussel. This time, I shot him in the head to put him out of his misery. What a curious coincidence…that of all the thousands of acres nearby, he should find his way to my farm…me, the person who shot him in the first place.’)
After a half hour or so of polite conversation, the whole group moved into the orangerie where a long table had been set up. It was a ‘pot luck’ dinner with each household bringing a dish. Damien provided the main course — a beef bourguignon.
That is probably a good place to begin our subject — dos and don’ts for a ‘diner campagnard.’ Because, if you’re having boeuf bourguignon you need to serve the right wine. Bordeaux wines are strong enough for the occasion, and to our tastes, quite satisfactory. But to be fully ‘en regle’ you need to serve a wine from Burgundy, the region where boeuf bourguignon comes from.
Before you get to table, though, you encounter two linguistic pitfalls…and a protocolary challenge.
As guests arrive, you need to greet them properly. In this case, we knew almost all of them. But there were some new wives and children in the mix. So, the first question….how do you address them?
If you know the woman’s first name, you say it: Bonjour Christine…or Bonjour Odile. If you don’t know them, you say, Bonjour Madame or Bonjour Mademoiselle. Which? If you know the woman is married, it is always ‘Bonjour Madame.’ But, in the French countryside today it is very common for couples not to marry. Nevertheless, you use the ‘madame’ where and when it is obvious that the woman is no virgin.
‘Mademoiselle’ is reserved for young women, those unmarried, under the age of 50 or so.
Next thing: as you are saying ‘hello’…you have a moment to decide whether you should reach for the woman’s hand or make a stab at her cheeks. A few years ago, it was rare to ‘faire la bise’ [kiss] with people out of your own family. But now, it is very common. Once a bond of friendship is established, you embrace the woman on both cheeks. In some places, further south, a pair of women might even do it twice on each cheek, the two heads bobbing back and forth like metronomes.
But if you are meeting the woman for the first time, or you have a more distant or formal relationship with her, you simply shake her hand, as you do with all of the men present.
Traditionally, French men kiss each other on the cheek. When Marechal Foche handed out medals in The First World War, he embraced the soldiers. But it is less common today, and it would make us uncomfortable.
There is an exception for children. Typically, they are kissed on the cheeks — even in the very first meeting. A well-educated child will present both checks to every adult to whom he is introduced.
After the initial greeting, there is another choice to make. Tu or Vous? Everyone who has ever taken a French lesson knows the general set-up. You say ‘tu’ [you] in an informal, familiar setting. Vous is formal. But there are nuances.
When you address children, use the ‘tu’ form.
When you address adults, use the ‘vous’ form…But, adults who know each other well will sometimes use the ‘tu’ form. Young people of equal social standing may refer to each other as ‘tu.’ Older people do too.
The Traditional Program
It varies with region, culture, and individual families. Some couples stick to ‘vous’ between husband and wife. But in any formal setting…or when you don’t know the people….or when you have doubts about how close you are, you’re better off sticking with ‘vous.’
And it doesn’t have to be symmetric. In many families, children ‘vous’ their parents…but ‘tu’ each other. Our gardener uses the ‘vous’ form when he talks to us. But we use ‘tu’ in response. With Elizabeth, who keeps more of a distance with him, it is ‘vous’ both going and coming.
Damien was in charge of the dinner. He sticks with the traditional program…
After the ‘apero’ came the first course — a fish terrine.
Then, the main course, the beef bourguignon.
That was followed by the salad course.
Then, the cheese course.
Followed by the desert — two delicious cakes…one, a cheesecake made by Patrice…and the other, a chocolate cake made by Chantal.
Then, at the end, came coffee…and/or an after dinner cognac.
Finally, as the cognac was being served, your editor rose and tapped upon his glass. He, as the chatelain (owner of the chateau where the dinner was held), had a role to play too:
‘I just want to spend a second thanking you all…all of those who work in our little village…all who help on the farm or help those who work on the farm…
…and I think we should also say a special thanks to Damien and Mickey for hosting this dinner…’
Damien radiated satisfaction. A good dinner…in good company…is a worthy project and a notable, memorable achievement.
Then, reaching for another glass of cognac, Damien knocked a cup over.
‘Oaannn! Bordel de pute!’
For The Daily Reckoning Australia