Tuesday, 10 February 2015

Place de la Fontaine, The Language Group and a Picnic at Silvie's

Le Perroquet Vert is a quaint English cafe cum club for anyone; it's a meeting place, a craft club, an outlet for artisan made clothes, a book exchange and many other things. It's in the heart of Chalais  on the wonderfully French "Place de la Fontaine".  The central fountain features a bronze statue of  a beautiful young woman in a modern high-cut bathing suit standing in the fountain and cupping her hands under the water pipe.

The lady in the fountain.
The music maker

The Place, an intersection of five streets, is quite small, about 75 meters across, on several levels and is surrounded by picturesque 19th century buildings. Well, they're picturesque to us southern hemisphere visitors but probably  quite ordinary to the French eye. I like to think that they give  great character to the Place. Built of grey stone (the building material of choice in Chalais), they are mostly four stories high, typically with a shop or cafe at street level and apartments above. Several of the buildings feature narrow,  ornate,  but rusty wrought iron balconies wrapping around the first floor. The apparent condition of the balconies would not invite one to throw open the French windows and step outside to take the air. And, naturally,  all the sagging window shutters on the upper floors are tastefully decorated in that French provincial “peeling paint” style.

There's a very good pharmacy on one corner of the plaza, a bucherie opposite, a forlorn closed shop "for lease" on another  and cafes on the other corners, one being Le Perroquet Vert.

In the Place. Is the blond lady perhaps appreciating the aroma?
Summertime enjoyment is taking "un café” or “une bière" at a table in the plaza under the shade of the leafy plane trees. On Mondays this enjoyment is enhanced by the hustling spectacle of the street market.  A fish monger's stall is always thoughtfully situated right alongside the plaza seating where its aroma can bring tears of pure joy to the eyes of fish monger aficionados.

On market day, a regular busker plays to the captive audience under the trees.  Youngish, with  moustache and stubble, dressed country rustic style, he hand cranks the music cards through his organ grinder and sings the old French songs in a suitably husky voice. His performance adds to the great atmosphere of the morning. It's so arty that I think we customers could all be extras in a film production and I look around for the film crew and cameras.

One morning in February Val and I decided to take coffee in " Le Perroquet Vert". We sat next to three ladies talking quietly in English. So Val leans over to the ladies, excuses herself and asks if they know of any social tennis group in the area. (I had carted my tennis racket half  way around the world in the fond hope of somehow breaking  into a tennis group.)   No, unfortunately they didn't.  But the ladies became interested in our plans for a long sojourn in the area and the whole house exchange experience.

This was a most serendipitous meeting, the single most fortunate meeting in our time in France.

One of the ladies, Barbara, was the convenor of an informal French and English language group. She explained that the group met every Thursday evening (excluding holiday periods) in the “Amicale Laïque de Chalais” rooms and invited us to join. Which we did.

By this time it was clear to us that very little social activity would arise from our French connections at either Le Petit Maine or Juignac, the local village where we attended that end of season  fete and dinner. Our French, while adequate for day to day living and (very) short conversational needs is certainly not adequate for any extended social interaction. Hence we were quite keen to grab the opportunity  to join Barbara’s group.

Turning up at the next Thursday evening class we were made most welcome.  Barbara had us introduce ourselves. We did try our broken French but lapsed into English, which was quite OK as this provides good exercise for our new French classmates . Us being on such a long vacation with a house exchange and coming from Australia...."oh, that is so far away!"... did create some excitement  for the group that evening.

The group comprises about equal numbers of English and French people, of middling to later years. The exception is young Arnaud who works in the family hardware business and wants a better command of English so he can attract the many English home renovators in the area. That's his official line but maybe he really wants to better chat up the girls when on holiday in England ("oh, what a lovely accent you have Arnaud…...you must let me see your etchings"). With his wicked sense of humour and a full range of Gallic facial expressions we all think he has totally missed his calling.

Jolly Ian...that's not Pam by the way.
In the group there's Jenny and Mick, retired from their undertaker business, Barbara's husband Pete, a retired prison governor, Phillip  and  Laura who love horses and dogs and old sports cars, Patricia and Roy, a lovely Welsh couple, Pam and her husband, big Ian, who is suspiciously reticent on any details about his past (shady?) history and then there’s Carol and Linda.

On the French side we have petite Claude and Jeanette,  retired professionals, gentle and courteous. Silvie, Genevieve, a senior manager with a large engineering company, Marie-Pierre, Francoise and Jean-Yves, retired farmer and for many years deputy mayor of his commune. And of course the afore mentioned group comedy relief, Arnaud.

Mea culpa...I know there are other lovely people in the group whom I have not mentioned by name and I beg their forgiveness.

The sessions are great fun with much laughter. Usually Barbara has each person briefly tell of their activity during the last week with anyone free to correct mispronunciations, of which there are many. Jean-Yves always seems to be working in his garden or cutting wood. Quite often someone's chance remark will lead into an extended impromptu "lesson" led by Barbara. Val once remarked on the absolute lack of pumpkins in the shops or market stalls (she had wanted to make pumpkin soup) which led to a discussion on the seasonality of French produce. One lesson was given over to the humble lamington when Val  brought some to class.

The upshot was that your intrepid travellers struck up lasting friendships within the group.

The social ball started rolling when Barbara and the charming Peter invited us to lunch in company with Pam and Ian at their home in the village of Passirac. Ian is a large, jolly man possessing  a wickedly dry sense of humour, one liners delivered deadpan while his eyes twinkle and his hand reaches for the pint pot, be it beer or vin rouge, both of which he consumes copiously. I try valiantly to keep up but the competition is just too good. Pam, his wife, rolls her eyes yet again.

 Barbara serves a traditional Charentais  cassoulet.  The lunch, the wine and the conversation is delightful with everyone getting nicely nicely. Val drives home (as usual) via the little back lanes (as usual).

This first invitation was especially appreciated as we had begun to consider the doubtful benefits of a year in the social wilderness and the lack of extended  convivial conversation with anyone but ourselves.

High summer arrives and Silvie announces that she intends to throw an afternoon garden picnic for the whole group. Everyone turns up at Silvie's and there is much bonjouring,  kissing of cheeks and hand shaking.

Silvie's is a long house with a totally windowless rear wall which forms one side of the rustic courtyard of a much larger and grander farmhouse. Entry to this house is via a shallow sweeping staircase onto a terrace and into the ground floor. The elevated ground floor is built over a cellar level which is only half below ground. There is a second floor,  above which is the attic space with a series of round dormer windows presumable giving light and air to the servant quarters.
Ourselves on the left, Patricia and Roy on the right.
Barbara and Pete are centre on the left
Everyone has bought something for the feast and something for the glass. Long trestle tables are placed end to end on the grass and are soon covered in food. There's bread and green salads and quiches, rich pates, charcute, gateaux, English sausage rolls and scotch eggs, many varieties of cheeses. Jean-yves is the hero of the day. He opens and distributes a seemly endless supply of his farm pineau. It's a tasty drop and easy drinking. Jean-Yves is justifiably proud.

What a day in the sun! Happy friendly people with a common bond, laughing, chatting loudly, eating and drinking. Your travellers feel themselves privileged to be part of this lively gathering of French and British friends on a farmhouse lawn deep in rural France. Forget the organized tours...this is the real thing! Thanks Silvie.
Arnaud: I theenk there ess an escargot in my salade!!!
That's Jean-Yves with the bottle.

Val drives home (as usual) via the little back lanes (as usual).

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