Another of my ‘rescued’ prose pieces from way back, this is one I enjoyed re-reading, as the memories came back.
Bastille Day in the Auvergne
The day had started well enough – we had by now completely lost track of the calendar, and didn’t realise it was Bastille Day. We drove into the village for our morning shopping – bread and wine was really all we needed – and found the market in full swing. We bought little crottins of fresh goats’ cheese, and some lovely savoury walnut bread to eat with it. About to head back, and ignoring the funfair set up on both sides of the main street, we heard a samba drum troupe start up. They were French, of course, with the usual heavily painted faces and bright tasteless costumes the French associate with Latin America. The leader had a fine sense of rhythm, blowing on a whistle and delivering the beat with one hand and one stick. Most of the rest knew how to follow him, on the big bass drums and rattles. Some of the remainder caught up with the rhythm from time to time and helped it on its way, or didn’t quite make it. An approximate polyrhythm was OK, but without a melody line from voice or instrument, it became a bit monotonous and boring, unless you happened to be watching, as I was, a young woman with extremely mobile hips who visibly appreciated what the samba is really all about – sex of course.
After blocking several main traffic arteries, the band led us down a side street towards the Fire Station, where An Event was to be staged by the local brigade. In Germany, in the village of Boppard Bad Salzig, we had once watched a demonstration and entertainment by the local Feuerwehr – the volunteer Fire Department. It had been conducted, as you would expect, with precision and professionalism, in an atmosphere of serious enjoyment. Les Pompiers of Champs-sur-Tarentaine, I would have to say, had charm and ineptitude in equal measure. I’d hate to see them tackle a real blaze, and yet I’m sure they’d mean terribly well, and argue seriously and loudly over the most logical way of dealing with their problem, while the building burned.
They had run out an extension ladder from a fire engine to an impressive height, and fixed three foam-head attachments at various heights. The gallant pompiers donned their shiny metal helmets and, with an air of devil-may-care manliness, ran up the ladder to their posts. The hoses were switched on and three spouts of foam jetted forth. The jet from the lowest one changed from white to a sugary pink froth, while the other two stayed white. From the efforts of a junior fireman on the ground, wrestling with a storage tank, pulling on a siphon tube and shaking it, I began to surmise that the firemen must have been trying to recreate a Tricolour in coloured foam. The junior delivered a final oath to his apparatus, thumped the tank, and shrugged in defeat. The topmost spray remained defiantly white – blue did not win through.
Next they ran out a long yellow concertina pipe, and attached a hose at its end. This, we were all certain, was a large foam generator, which would easily blanket the car park. When all had been connected up, however, a thin stream of gently frothing liquid oozed out of the end of the pipe. The fifty-gallon drum was emptied, to a total lack of effect. At the end, a little three year old was the only person in the crowd who applauded, apart from the occasional half-hearted rehearsing tap from the mock South Americans, now almost as demoralised as the embarrassed pompiers.
That evening we dined out in a local village restaurant, and had a really good Auvergnat meal – the best coq au vin I’ve ever tasted. After our meal we decided to park back in our home village and have a look round the funfair. Some of the side-shows and competitions were totally incomprehensible, but the looks of wonder on the faces of the little French children were, as ever, a source of delight. We were about to head back to our cottage when we noticed a drift of people moving towards the field at the back of the village hall. We joined the good-natured crowd ringing the field in the darkness, and I suddenly became aware that the music coming from the sound system was a tape of the Jan Garbarek Group, a Norwegian-led band which weaves elements of Sami (Lapp), Indian, South American and African music into a unique atmospheric tapestry of very modern jazz.
The firework display, when it came, was very impressive, the effects well synchronised with a kind of symphonic rock background. As I thought back to my disbelieving reaction to hearing a Sami ‘hauk’ played in a little Auvergne field, miles from anywhere, to an audience of mainly locals, I was reminded again just how truly civilised the French are. Culture, from whatever source, really means something to them, and it would be wonderful if it meant as much to the other nations in our small and overcrowded continent. There are, after all, much more important things in life than firemen failing to blow pretty bubbles.
Auvergne, July 1994
Copyright © Colin Will 1994