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By this time our French conversational skills were pretty much exhausted. We managed a few more sentences about cows and weather but that was about it. To me, conversing in French is very much like holding your breath - after a minute, I’m spent and speechless. Words and phrases were flying over my head as Roger and Claudine chattered on about this and that. I looked at Shelagh, she looked at me. What were they saying? Claudine and Roger tempted us with a few more sentences but even after three repeats I was still lost.

A silence descended.

An awkward silence that I felt compelled to fill.

Always a big mistake.

I thought I’d try and work horses into the conversation – find a common subject we could talk about. I wondered if they’d ever used horses on their farm.

"No, never," they said.

I should have quit at that point. I’d asked a question and received an answer I understood. My daily quota had been filled. But my interest had been piqued. What had they used on the farm before the advent of the tractor? Oxen? I’d seen a picture showing a working oxen team pulling a plough in the Central Massif as late as 1970. Had they used oxen here?

The conversation went downhill from that point. What was the French for ox? Guidebooks won’t tell you. They don’t cover rural small talk. Plenty of phrases for 'Where is the station?' and 'Can you tell me where the toilets are?' but 'Where are the oxen?' – don’t even bother to look.

I tried grande vache, rationalising that a big cow was worth a shot.

It wasn’t.

Shelagh’s eyes had rolled into the top of her head and she was slowly, sidling away from the conversation. Claudine and Roger were transfixed. Big cow? What was that about the big cow?

I pressed on, if I couldn’t find the words, I’d mime them. I fastened my wrists to the top of my head. But before I could stop myself my fingers splayed and my hands started waggling. My horns had evolved into antlers.

And immediately frightened off the few French nouns that I had left.

And in between the waggling, came the babbling.

I tried to say, 'In England, before tractors, we used to have oxen.' It came out more like, 'In England, all tractors are preceded by giant elk.'

If not a man with a red flag.

It was time to go.

Shelagh grabbed hold of my left antler and tugged me towards the door.


As I stood at the roadblock, blowing into a little plastic bag, I couldn't help but reflect on how sporting the police were being. Breathalysing motorists at 10:00 am on a market day was not going to provide a rich catch of drunks. Whereas, if they'd waited a few hours until after déjeuner and the mix of market day enthusiasm and cheap wine had reached its peak ... well, they would have filled the cells.

Which, on reflection, was probably why they timed their roadblock earlier. A police station crammed to the ceilings with drunken farmers and a car park full of abandoned tractors was not something to be solicited lightly.

The bag blown up and the crystals scrutinised, I was taken inside for processing. The roadblock being outside the police station, I didn't have far to walk. And then came the interrogation.

Where was my identification?

"Er ... à la maison?"