It’s traditional at the start of the year for each commune to hold a gathering called The Mayor’s Wishes. Ours was on Friday. Everyone was notified, and we wandered up to the Salle des Fêtes at the appointed time to meet and greet.
It’s rather like ‘Cold Comfort Farm’ where Aunt Ada holds the counting, just to check that no-one’s sloped off to better things, and escaped her Doom.
We went in, and had to kiss everyone present twice (chaps do the manly handshake thing) whilst wishing them ‘Bonne Année, bonne santé’. Then we stood around for a few minutes, chatting to all and sundry, and eventually sat at the long tables which had been set with glasses, plates, teaspoons, napkins, and coffee cups.
The Mayor started by explaining that the turnout was low, as a lot of people are ill: gastro, bronchitis and flu are sweeping France, aided by all the warm damp weather this winter.
Suddenly all that kissing and bonhomie seemed a bit foolish, not to say downright dangerous.
She then told us all the civic news: who died, who’s been born. The population of our commune has dropped by 10, to 179, since the last census. (Aunt Ada Doom wouldn’t have stood for it.) She also told us about major expenditure last year - lots of road resurfacing, and a new workshop for the Commune Man - and what's planned for the year to come.
Once the speech had been made, it was time for the galette des rois. This is a pastry and frangipane concoction with a hidden surprise: a fève, or bean, rather like the sixpence in a Christmas pudding. The bean is a little china figure, and the person who finds it is crowned king or queen for the evening. The crown represents the one you’ll need to acquire from the dentist afterwards, if you have been incautious.
We spent the evening talking to a couple who had been to Scotland recently. They had eaten haggis for breakfast (though I’m sure she told her neighbour that it was made from beef, and I really didn’t have the heart to enlighten her), but had been aghast at the price of food. 15 € for a single plat! And the whiskey so expensive – they’d had to drink beer! The husband’s main interest, though, was whether we’d had Christmas Pudding this year. He seemed deeply let down when we said no.
So as the plates were filled (and refilled twice more) people sat there poking about with their teaspoon to test for dental danger. It’s actually quite hard to eat a warm pastry with a blunt teaspoon – try it sometime.
Our glasses were topped up regularly, possibly as there were far fewer people present than had been catered for, with sparkling wine, and the conversation was deafening. Last year’s wishes included a plan to sort out the acoustics in the hall – obviously this was side-lined by road works and workshop-erecting.
Eventually the plates were cleared away, and coffee poured: the teaspoon was retained for mashing the sugar lump into the cup.
At the end of the evening, we spilled out of the hall into total darkness. The street lights go off at ten here, no matter what. I have never actually been unable to see my hand in front of my face before: it is very unnerving. Suddenly I understood the reason why people retired when the sun went down, with a gazunder under the bed: how would you ever find your way to an outside privy? Our little torch barely penetrated the black night.
We came away glad that we had gone, if only to fly the flag: we were the only English present. Some were on holiday, some had moved away, and some were possibly struck down by one or all of the current maladies. I have a copy of the Mayor’s Speech to translate for them, so they’ll get the news without the beans, emergency dentistry, or any germs they didn’t have to start with.
But they’ll have missed out on being made to feel part of it all, being with friends and neighbours who are pleased to see us, even (especially?) if it’s only once a year, and being, just for a little while, very French.
Bonne Année, et (and I mean this most sincerely) bonne santé!