Last week my French life went by in a whirl which seemed to mirror the actions of 219 famous cyclists who came through town.
On Monday I was interviewed for a radio show. I hate hearing myself so I’m always nervous when I do these things. When I was a teenager I was in a TV ad for McDonalds – can’t tell you how much fun the other kids at school got out of that one! Anyway, the lovely interviewer Maribeth Clemente of Bonjour Colorado was very kind and put me at my ease and my interview went out on KOTO Radio in the travel slot sometimes filled by Rick Steeves (total thrill for me). Being a Londoner means I talk really fast, a bit like “allo-Mary-Poppins-what-a-lovely-day-it-is-cor-blimey-love-a-duck”, so I tried really hard to talk slow but it wasn’t easy!
On Tuesday last week Le Tour de France came zipping through Hucqueliers, a little town not far from my home in the lovely Seven Valleys in Pas de Calais. Me and the OH (Other Half) drove to town to meet our friends and cheer the riders on. We were late because the OH was helping a client with a crisis (website stuff). With one minute to go before the Caravanne – the convoy of publicity vehicles – arrived, we pulled up in the centre of town. Amazingly we still managed to get a free parking place just seconds from the action. I have to say, it’s one of the things I love about my part of France – not everything here is a money marking opportunity and most car parks are still free.
It was a gorgeous day, sunny and warm, everyone was happy, waving flags and excited to be involved with the world’s greatest sporting spectacle. Before this I’d never really got what made everyone so enthusiastic – but seeing the publicity vehicles, the crowds, the pageant of it all, really made me appreciate just how spectacular an event it is. While taking pictures I got hit in the eye with a packet of Madeleines. The publicity vehicles toss gifts to the crowds (16 million gifts in 3 weeks to be precise); “lucky you” said Monsieur B who had escaped from behind the counter of his tiny epicerie two villages down to join in the fun. The little boulangerie in town was closed and the locals were complaining that the baker had run out of bread and Madeleines by 10.00 so I guess I was lucky!
After the riders went through in a matter of seconds, whizzing down the hill, round the corner and up the hill, we and our friends went to the bar. We sat sipping rosé wine in the sun at the local bar, Chez Annie and watched a tractor pass carrying a forlorn paper mache horse that moments before had been the centre of attention in town – accompanied bizarrely by a police car.
The rest of the week was spent cutting the hedges in our garden. My neighbour has been complaining about the height and state of the hedges for ages and he does have a point. Copious rain and a mild winter have made the yew, elder tree, hawthorne and hazel borders grow more than usual. It has taken days to get them into some semblance of hedgery though I doubt my neighbour will be happy with the results – his garden is perfect unlike my slightly messy efforts. The majority of our French neighbours are really friendly and help us foreigners out – but not all and I’d be leading you up the garden path if I said they were. My other neighbour J-P warned me that if I didn’t get the hedges cut by Bastille Day, the Mayor would be within his rights to arrange for them to be sorted out and send me the bill. So hedges cut (mostly).
On Sunday I went to a flea market in a town called Fruges. If you were to judge this town on how it looks as you first see it you might dismiss it as a go-through. I mean you probably wouldn’t stop for a coffee or a look round. There are loads of towns like that but, get off the main road and into the back streets and you’re usually bound to make discoveries. Fruges is a very friendly town and when it started to rain we dived into a Tabac for cover. Tabacs in French towns are great for an authentic flavour of real life France. Looking round the café that also serves as a tobacconist, general store, somewhere to buy lottery tickets and bet on the horses, I felt that this place absolutely typifies this part of France. Traditional, friendly and really welcoming.
The bar lady bought our grand crèmes (large coffees with milk) to our table and shook our hands. The coffee was so strong I thought I might be awake for three days. Her husband was in the kitchen preparing Sunday lunchtime snacks, little cheeses, cold meats, biscuits and crisps. He was quite old and bought them out with shaky hands, placing them on the tables – completely free, a Sunday tradition. I took a photo and he looked at me quizzically. I told him I’m a travel writer. I might just as well have said, I am an alien from the planet Zog because he looked completely bemused and shuffled back to the kitchen and never emerged again. Well he probably did after we left…
Meanwhile I have two ducks nesting in the garden – they refuse to stay in the pen with the rest of the birds. This is rather tiresome for me since I have to feed and water them separately. They amaze me with their determination – they hardly move off the eggs. I’ve taken to feeding them bits of bread while they’re nesting – they scoff it hungrily from my fingers.
Finally, two stray cats have been coming to the window of my office for food. One is a pathetic little ginger tom with a floppy ear, the other a tiny black kitten. The Other Half tells me that the 5 stray cats we have already are enough – we have to stop. I can’t bear to see them go hungry though it does worry me that the farmer next door but one has about 50 stray cats in his barn and I might end up with a house full of felines and never be able travel again if I’m not careful…