Meet and greet thy neighbours – even if you can´t love them
Every holiday season, our part of the small French town we call home is enlivened by a visit from my son’s friend Geoffrey and his father, Didier. During the long, hot summer, Didier celebrates his birthday with a party. This is generally held in the oppressively small medieval courtyard at the back of his apartment. Here the eccentrically stacked stone walls bulge and tower above the guests, trapping and amplifying all noise and smells.
The first time we received an invitation we turned up promptly at seven. Kitted out in our best clothes we were a little unsure of what to expect. Even at that time of the evening, the air was still oppressive, and in the stifling courtyard so much Pastis had already been consumed that tempers were beginning to run short and hot. It promised to be an interesting night.
Tables and chairs had been arranged into a lopsided ‘T' formation. They sagged under the weight of wine and beer. Between the bottles of alcohol, glistening budget packs of raw meat lay sweating pinkly. Jean Claude, the skinny fellow from up the road, was drunkenly berating his ex-girlfriend, Cecile, for flirting with another guest. Cecile, meanwhile, sobbed and wailed loudly into her glass comforted by two tipsy friends. Not before time, Jean Claude's mortified fourteen-year-old son managed to hoist him to his feet and drag him home so that by 8.30pm some semblance of bonhomie could be restored to the gathering.
The party lost none of its verve with Jean Claude's departure. My husband, Chris, and I observed Didier slide lower into his chair, dribbling quietly and gazing around in a sort of unfocused but benign manner, parts of his birthday flan clinging to his chest. We managed to smile in that tight-lipped and embarrassed way that only the English can manage, and toasted Didier's 40th with delicate reserve. Meanwhile, Jacques (forever after referred to as ‘Chicken Man') set about burning the meat as thoroughly as possible on the BBQ. As he poured copious amounts of olive oil over the pork and chicken pieces, the flames leaped ever higher, eventually reaching high enough to melt a plastic flower pot hanging a meter above the grill.
Henri, a black-bearded, barrel of a man arrived with his two bitches that promptly decided to have a lesbian orgy under the tables with Didier's dog, Jazz. They chased each other excitedly and passionately between assorted legs, knocking glasses and paper plates flying.
I found myself separated from Chris, trapped in a conversation of sorts with Chicken Man. He did most of the talking, while I tried my best to avoid looking at the black pearls of sweat that were multiplying under his glistening chins. I hoped I wouldn't have to watch droplets fall on the meat. He gaily told me several times that he had been a professional chef for many years. I speculated on the name of his home planet. I was a bit put out that my considerable language skills and virtual mastery of French were clearly unrecognized by Jacques. Each time as he tenderly placed some chicken on my plate, he said very slowly and deliberately, as if to a young, slightly deaf and very stupid child:
"Poulet! C'est Poulet, Madame!" and proceeded to give his best impersonation of a poulet clucking. Thereafter each and every time he pronounced the word ‘poulet' to anyone, he'd turn to me, wink and cluck loudly.
I began to wonder if this was some sort of French foreplay. I looked at the burned offerings on my plate and admitted that as the poulet was barely recognizable, the identifying sound effects were perhaps necessary after all. When I cut into the carbonized piece of thigh, a chunk snapped off, flew across the table and nearly took my daughter's eye out.
Chris, meanwhile, was attempting to entertain Cecille, and her friends while at the same time discretely kicking the rampant dogs beneath the table. He made the three women laugh politely with his only French joke, "Où est le meilleur place en France pour trouver un poulet? En haut d'une colline, derrière un arbre!" Where is the best place in France to find a chicken (the French slang for a policeman)? On top of a hill, behind a tree, holding a radar!
"Well," I thought to myself, "it certainly isn't here".
The blackened chicken was eased through our digestive tracts with the help of the wine. In turn, the cheap wine was helped along by Pastis and the Ch’ti beer. Against all odds, we actually survived the night, our status in the quartier forever elevated by our attendance.
The only question troubling us the following morning was why natives of any country assume that just because you are foreign, that you are also a retard!
All rights belong to its author. It was published on e-Stories.org by demand of Rachel Thornton.
Published on e-Stories.org on 11.01.2018.