Low life

Why the kindness of strangers trumps a pagan festival

18 August 2018

9:00 AM

18 August 2018

9:00 AM

The entire Alpine village, contemptuously dismissed recently in an online tourist guide as a nondescript centre of old peasants and old dogs, was gathered under an awning in the single street for a festive lunch. Oscar and I squeezed along between long rows of perhaps 100 bent backs to the only pair of empty chairs remaining. The tables were covered with disposable paper covers; everyone had brought their own plate and knife. As we sat, our immediate neighbours greeted us with vinous geniality. They were a matriarchal middle-aged woman, a mournful girl aged about 13 with thick lenses in her spectacles, and two young men with comically drunk faces. Everyone was drinking dark pink wine decanted into old-fashioned glass-stoppered bottles. The lunch was the highlight of a pagan village festival in honour of the presiding spirit of the ancient communal village oven, lit nowadays once a year for this special occasion.

Presently, a woman came round doling out half-melons from a builder’s mortar bucket. Our neighbours saw to it that we were supplied with a sharp knife and asked us what our names were and where we had come from. The circumstances were so very different from anything that Oscar had ever encountered in his home town of Newton Abbot that he was paralysed by dumb shyness. And I was stone-deaf in one ear, my morale lowered by a weird infection. I did my best to speak up brightly and informatively, but we must have appeared to them a sorry pair: deaf, shy, downcast, inarticulate, uncomprehending, foreign and sober.

After the melon came pizza, piping hot from the sacred oven. The huge, irregular portions were doled out from the builder’s bucket with urgency rather than ceremony by a sweaty-faced woman wearing a green apron. Oscar quickly ate up his portion, then whispered in my good ear that, credit where credit’s due, he had enjoyed it. Then he climbed into my lap and hung an arm around my neck and I poured myself a glass of pink wine, an act that drew kindly expressions of encouragement from our neighbours. For about five minutes we tried to glean as much enjoyment as we could from watching other people enjoying themselves. But it was useless. So I made our apologies to our neighbours and we edged our way back out between the rows of backs and returned the 50 yards to our accommodation to collect ourselves.

Our accommodation was a chalet-style single room and terrace, clean but basic, in a row of five others. The hoarse old woman who had introduced us to the room had been terribly anxious that it met our expectations. When I had said the room was very nice, she was enraptured and kissed me and then Oscar passionately. And now, as we returned, there she was again, introducing a family to the room next door. Ecstatic still after my positive comment, she pleaded with Oscar for just one more kiss and told me that I had made her the happiest woman in the world. Our new neighbours were perfectly affable but warned us that their dog, a rangy Doberman pinscher, was dangerously unpredictable and that Oscar should refrain from stroking it, as he was doing now.

We went inside the room, played James Bond Monopoly for two hours, then lay on the bed and fell asleep until dusk. Then we got up, put on our coats, and went for a walk around the village, now deserted and quiet, perhaps to remain so for another year. We hadn’t gone far when an extended family, cosily seated at a table under a horse chestnut, invited us to join them for a glass of wine and some tapenade on toast. Feeling more sociable after our nap, we assented. There was a dog — a cross between an English field spaniel and possibly a hyena — with which Oscar made friends. My French had mysteriously improved after a nap too; enough, at any rate, to understand that the patriarch of the family was a third-generation pied-noir, and that he was droning on about his experience of being kicked out of Algeria in 1962 with nothing but the clothes he stood up in, and of being treated as an undesirable alien in France. I couldn’t understand all of what he was saying, but it was clear that he was still pretty cheesed off. One of his sons secretly tilted his chin at me, in that universal ‘here we go again’ gesture of tolerant amusement. The new pink wine they were pouring from old bottles was out of this world. So was Oscar’s iced tea, he said. When it was dark the old man hung a lantern over us. I sipped the wine and studied the pattern the light made in the horse chestnut leaves. We stayed for an hour and half. They were so kind.

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