Sunday, April 22, 2012

A convivial evening

"Come over for aperos, around 8pm." 

What an odd thing to suggest. An aperitif is a drink you have before your dinner, a disgestif one that you have afterwards – much needed, because if you dine late, you are going to need some help with the digesting before you can even hope to go to sleep. 

So you are being invited to come and have a drink and a few nibbles, and a spot of amiable chat, in the unwritten acceptance that you will then push off and let your hosts have their meal in peace. You will be sipping your Pineau de Charentes and munching on salty nuts with the aroma of the Bourgignon or the chicken Chasseur wafting around you, especially as, in the country, aperos are served in the kitchen. 

The etiquette of aperos is that you do not linger for more than an hour, maybe an hour and a half at the outside, in order to facilitate the eating of said dinner by your hosts, but also so that you can go home and eat yours. You do not outstay your welcome. 

Armed with this knowledge, we decided we should hold such an event, though we took the English wimp’s way out and ate first. We set the bottles on the table, laid out the nibbles, and waited for our guests to arrive. 

These were our neighbour and his uncle, a retired doctor who came to stay for six months of the year, and spent the rest of the time on the south coast, in one of his many properties. The neighbour was a lovely man who spoke several languages; his uncle robustly refused to understand a single word of anything but French, and if you couldn’t follow him, he repeated things in increasing volume until you did. His nephew would translate, up to the point where he refused, for the sake of the entente cordiale

The English say that on such occasions (not that we have aperos: we have, perhaps cocktails, but not this pre-dinner, have a glass and get lost, ritual) you should not discuss religion, sex, or politics. Uncle launched into all three with gusto. 

The die had been cast when we first met, and he asked whether I were a philosopher. I replied, philosophically, that one must be. And that was that. I was a whole new audience for his long-held, rigid, tenets on anything and everything. 

No sooner had he sat down than he asked, “Are the English young people still sleeping together before marriage?” in a tone that implied, “and what are you doing about it?” That was the opening salvo in what can only be constituted a battle of wits that couldn’t be won.  Whenever he sensed that he was losing the upper hand, he changed the subject. “Do animals have souls?” “The English aristocracy are all gay because of the Public School system.”  “Margaret Thatcher was a great Prime Minister even though she was a woman.” 

I didn’t drink much – I was on medication that disagreed with alcohol. “Give up the medication,” said the former doctor. “You can’t live without wine.” To underline this, he helped himself to the drink. A finger of whiskey became two: that was rinsed out with red wine, pastis, more whiskey. He was knocking back the nibbles too. The little individually-wrapped cheeses went down a treat, and the wrappers went straight on the floor. 

Before the evening was over – and it went on, and on, for nearly three hours – I was actually banging my head on the table in sheer frustration. Eventually, when he who does everything around here and I were totally exhausted, the old reprobate heaved himself to his feet, and I got to mine, ready to find his coat. He then shot off down the hall to examine the staircase, and to comment on its sturdy and useful construction. It did just what a staircase should do, which apparently is exactly what you want in one. 

I then shoe-horned him into his coat (they had walked fifty yards to our house, but it was a formal occasion), and he turned to the man of the house. “It’s good when a woman helps you on with your clothes, but it’s even better when she helps you take them off!” he said, with a leer. I held the front door wide, and he, well-pleased, and his nephew, long inured to his ways, left the premises. We bolted the door, stood in the middle of the floor, and laughed hysterically for a good five minutes in total shock. 

The next day we saw that all their lace curtains were now knotted in the way I had done ours. I chose to see this as a mark of respect for a worthy adversary, rather than a case of, to the victor, the spoils. 

We eat our main meal at lunchtimes now. If you don’t eat dinner, there can be no need for aperitifs.
Cocktails, anyone?
© lms2012

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Not Casting a Clout

It’s hailing today. A couple of weeks ago we had warmth, sunshine, and spring leaping out at us from all directions. We were all cutting the grass, getting the overwintering plants out, and chasing cobwebs that we hadn’t seen in the gloom and which suddenly seemed to have draped themselves like dusty swags from every corner. Cattle which had been kept indoors all winter were allowed into the fields, and the calves were kicking up their heels for the sheer joy of space and air and hope. 

People were a close second. 

The beaches were heaving, the summer clothes were being shaken out, and all that bare flesh that usually lurks up sleeves and trouser legs was being waved frantically in the direction of the sun in a kind of dire thirst. 

In England, of course, the older generation looked on, and frowned and tutted. “Ne’er cast a clout till May’s out,” they said, wagging a knowing finger. Few listened. 

In France, there is one group of people who never cast a clout. At all. Ever. They are the farmers.

In the height of summer, when the sun is so hot it’s trying to squash you into the ground, there will be the farmer on his tractor, in his vest, and tee shirt, and shirt buttoned up to the neck, and a cardigan (albeit with impromptu air holes), and possibly a jacket, and most definitely a cap of some sort. His tractor may not possess a cab (his tractor may not possess a seat, but just a makeshift affair involving sacks and the cardigans whose holes have made actually dressing in them too much of a puzzle) so he has to keep the sun off any way he can. 

He doesn’t look up at the sky and think,  "I’ve got to have some of that!" and rip off his layers. He may have done that once, in his madcap youth, and learned the hard way. A sunburned farmer with a crashing headache is still a farmer, and the stock still have to be dealt with; so, as with age comes wisdom, so it brings with it the many-layered approach to skin conservation. 

We knew a very elderly man down south whose wife knitted his vests for him, and had done since they got married. He had only ever been away from home for the time it took to do his National Service in North Africa in the 60s, and one assumes that she knitted enough for him to take with him.
For social affairs he would dress up rather finely in his smart trousers and one of those soft, supple leather jackets that only Frenchmen can wear. He was a tiny chap who always conversed with a lady’s bosom and rarely anything further north; but that was only fair, as it was impossible to enter into conversation with him without your eye being inexorably drawn to the triangle of yellow knitted cotton peeping from the top of his shirt (the neck being unbuttoned indoors – no risk of any sunshine getting at him there, though obviously just the one or two buttons could be allowed off duty).
It was unknown whether the vests started out yellow, or just naturally took on a jaundiced look over time, but every single day of his life there it would be, under all the layers, protecting him from the elements. 

The oldest man in France is about 117, and has a son of 81. He’s a farmer. (There are 26 women older than him. The relationship with their undergarments is not known at this date). He’s not a banker or a magnate or a millionaire - the sort who might get their undies from specialist suppliers in the silk trade: no, he’s of the string vest wearing fraternity. 

If asked, these venerable people always claim that their longevity is down to a simple life, a tot of whiskey a day (or no alcohol at all), and going at the pace nature intended. This is of course nonsense. It’s a national secret, but I can reveal it to you  here: it's all in the vest. 

So if you want to live a long and healthy life, the answer does not lie in stretching yourself out on a lounger with a bottle of lotion and not much else on, frying gently. It involves keeping your clout about you at all times, whether May’s out or not.
© lms2012