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--- Three Fêtes and a Football Match ---
Our first experience of a French fête came in early June. We'd found the unexpected invitation waiting for us in our post box a week earlier. Journée Pêche, it had said.
It took us a while to work out whether this was a peach festival or something to do with fish. Fish was ahead narrowly, as we'd never seen much evidence of peach worship in the village. But we were far from certain - who could tell what old ways dwelt amongst the rural hearths of Gascony?
We read on. It was to be held at Tuco, by the church, a five-minute walk from our house. And the invitation came complete with a menu and a programme of events, starting with early morning fishing - or, possibly, peach picking.
The midday meal seemed remarkable value at only fifty francs. Especially as it included an apéritif, charcuterie, salad, paella, fromage, dessert, coffee and wine. Plus what looked like a barbecue of whatever the pêcheurs caught that morning. Could you catch peaches? And would you want to barbecue them if you did?
Peaches were definitely out. Although the image of wild peach hunters crouching by the roadsides with their long peach spears glistening in the early morning sun lingered for quite a while.
The programme continued into the afternoon with what it called an amicable game of boules. The fact that they had to print the word 'amicable' implied to me that perhaps the normal game was far from it. Should we take our coloured plastic set or would that be taken as an insult to the national game?
We were still wondering about the etiquette of using coloured plastic on the hallowed gravel when we noticed the last entry in the day's festivities. Grillades, Soirée Dansante et Feu de la St-Jean.
Ah. Feu de la St-Jean, didn't that sound suspiciously like the burning of Joan of Arc? And how would the presence of an English couple at the burning of a French saint go down with the locals?
And why were they burning her? Wasn't she on their side? Wasn't that akin to burning effigies of James I on Guy Fawkes night?
Or was this something peculiarly Gascon? I'd noticed the name Prince Noir appear frequently in glowing terms in the local tourist guides. The Black Prince built this, the Black Prince killed that. He'd been Duke of Aquitaine and the feudal lord over much of South-West France. And apparently popular with the locals because he knew how to fight and gave a good party.
But was that enough to turn the region against Joan of Arc?
Which is where my history deserted me. Was Aquitaine still in English hands when Joan of Arc was around? Or didn't that matter, was this like the English Wars of the Roses where rivalry became timeless? Certainly, I could imagine a Yorkshire village fete committee looking favourably upon a suggestion that effigies of Lancashire be burnt as part of the coming year’s celebrations. But was there the same depth of feeling here?
And if so, would we, as representatives of England, be called upon to cast the first burning faggot?
On the day of the fête we strolled down the hill just before noon. The sun was high overhead, the air still and the temperature soaring.
As the church steeple came into sight we wondered what a French village fete would be like. Would there be raffles and stalls? Would we be fined for not bringing our boules?
The first sounds wafted towards us as we neared the church. But from where? We'd expected the meal to be held in the village square. The word 'square' being used here in its loosest term, a more accurate description would be the space between the church and the road. But square or space, the adjective 'empty' was undoubtedly the correct one to apply.
We followed the noise around the church walls and into a place we didn't know existed. A cleared area behind the church which was now full of trestle tables, benches and about two hundred people.
It looked idyllic, an island of bright crushed stone leading down to a meadow and a small meandering river. Tree-lined hills rose up majestically from the valley floor, the hillside flecked with occasional stone buildings, farmsteads and barns, shining off-white in the sun and capped with the uneven reds, pinks and pale yellow of the old clay tiles.
And the fête had started.
We soon realised our mistake in not arriving earlier. All the shaded seats were taken. Most of the village crowded around a bar area underneath a huge tree, a few sat on shaded benches, no one sat in the full sun.
Which beat down upon the scene with a growing power. Luckily we'd brought our hats, we'd both had enough of sunstroke that year.
The bar was interesting - quite unlike anything I'd seen at an English fete. No beer, no lager, no cider. This was strictly an aperitif bar - plenty of Ricard, muscatel and port. But mainly Ricard. Which, from what I could see, could either be green, red or cloudy - none of which appealed. I find something intrinsically off-putting about drinking something brightly coloured - especially green. We stuck to the port. Unadventurous but safe.
We were soon found by three English people. There must have been something instantly recognisable about us - the lost look of an English couple abroad. Within minutes we were being introduced to a bewildering number of locals who all seemed to be interrelated. It was quite surprising. Everyone seemed to be someone’s cousin or married to someone's cousin or sometimes both. It was like one big extended family celebration.
And very confusing. All the names and faces blurred into one.