Town and Country

Clearing spaces – a metaphor for my mental condition

A wise old woman, who will disembowel me should she ever read this, said to me recently “Cerebral transition always runs ahead of emotional change. An open mind helps restless emotions”. It turns out she was right. Leaving the security of one culture where one’s shirts are ironed and placed in the wardrobe by one’s maid in the order in which she has noticed I like to wear them, and a fast ‘bey’ to the nearest slavey hanging about in the car park gets the car washed has its flipside, temperatures of close to 50 Celsius notwithstanding. Were it just one axial shift, one might be able to keep up. Two, on the other hand, represents a rather more spiky emotional challenge, thus leaving the relative security of Paris within forty-eight hours of arrival for the South was like a slalom run with a few unexpectedly tight turns.

It’s a long drive, even in a new, well-behaved vehicle. People drive differently, undertaking is frowned upon and sudden lane changing unheard of on the autoroute du soleil. Waist-high grasses surround the house and there’s a dead mammal, long desiccated in the Godin, having presumably slipped down the chimney and been unable to escape. The toilet cistern has sprung a leak. There is no ‘bey’ to fix either. Instead a complex sequence of social interactivity is set into motion. A leaking cistern is a job for ‘monsieur le plombier’. In the South, much like in Wales, people are often referred to by their professions. Fortunately, our very own wasta network exists in the form of Gipsy’s brother, who in his time was a world-class speleologist but now spends his time, as we all do, listening to the sounds of the forest surrounding our houses. He knows the original plumber and places a call. Half an hour later-at ten thirty in the evening, the ubiquitous white van arrives. He turns out to have long since retired but such is the esteem held by the family that even a late night call brings him. He has a shock of white hair, a vast expanse of moustache and an accent to stir treacle. No conversation can be begun about the business in hand before an exchange of courtesies – how well the melons are doing, prospects for the vendangeand, of course, la chasse. Scratch a French countryman and a hunter is revealed. He makes no apology that his plumber’s van is shared with a large cage for his hunting dogs. Boar hunting is a favourite pastime here and the boar hunting community frequently consists of artisans and craftsmen, thus if their disapproval is incurred, nothing gets done. Conversely, if they have untrammeled access to one’s land – we have a family of boars somewhere about – then they are souls of affability. The cistern is inspected and removed with much eyebrow raising and hand-waggling, where the hand oscillates like a metronome for three or four beats. This is a gesture peculiar to the South and can mean anything from ‘this is going to cost a fortune, chummy’ to ‘no problem at all, old chap-we’ll fix it in a heartbeat’. Turns out that external temperatures of minus fifteen Celsius last winter caused differential contraction of the cistern and its fitments and the porcelain had cracked. Since he himself installed the thing years before, he beamed at me and turned off the water. When we return, he will have fixed it, along with a few other bits and pieces that he noticed on a quick inspection of the bathroom. Bieng. I reach for my wallet, expecting to pay a hefty deposit, but he waved it aside, and with endless beams and waggles, bounced the tiny truck up the road.
Back in Paris, the annual island party is in full swing. All kinds of people turn out, from a toothless lesbian social worker who runs a battered wives clinic, to a visiting archaeologist from the Louvre who is a world authority on a particular kind of Greek vase, to ponytailed superannuated hippies with a, er, passion for horticulture.
I left early and went home to mow the lawn. I really must be getting old.
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