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Three Fetes
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By half past twelve a general consensus erupted and, like a flock of birds, the village turned as one and descended upon the benches. We lost our fellow nationals in the rush but found ourselves sat next to a family we later discovered to be our neighbours - they lived about a mile away but farmed the fields adjoining ours. We both had difficulty introducing ourselves. He became the-man-with-the-black-and-white-cows, a fine old Indian name if ever I've heard one, and we became Les Anglais.

And the wine flowed.

And a myth burst.

I had heard, probably from the same French lesson that introduced priorité a la droite, that even the humblest paysan was at heart a connoisseur of the grape and would insist upon a fine bottle of wine to accompany dinner.

But I recognised the wine being handed out. Not from its label - detailing its chateau or its year - but from the embossed stars on the glass. Six étoiles, the brand we bought, six francs a litre and a franc back on the bottle. This was more like it.

And there would be a tidy sum collected on the bottles from what I could see. Litre bottles of red and rosé alternated along the centre of every trestle table - one bottle between two people. And that was just the start, there were plenty of full crates stacked up for later.

It was interesting to note the lack of white wine. In fact I can't recall ever being offered white wine at any fete or communal meal since coming to France. It seems that in the Sud, if you want something white to drink it has to be Ricard.

Or water. Which Shelagh quickly ordered.

It's not that I'm an alcoholic, I'm a very moderate drinker as a rule. But I have an occasional weakness when it comes to refusing a drink. I have been known to stop off at the pub for a swift half, and three pints later I'm set in for the night and destined for a curry.

So I was under strict orders, moderation and plenty of water. Which might have worked if it hadn't been for the friendliness of our neighbours. Who kept filling my glass - even when it was three-quarters full. It was like a magic glass, I'd take a sip, struggle over the odd sentence of French and by the time I looked back my glass was full again.

Which made counting glasses extremely difficult.

And laid waste my plan of having two glasses of water for every glass of wine - nobody was interested in keeping my water glass topped up. This was France after all.

With the important business concluded - the wine distributed - next came the bread. Armfuls of flutes - the larger fatter version of the baguette - were plucked from sacks stacked in the church porch and handed around. Then platefuls of various cured meats, jambon, paté and gherkins.

Then the hats.

Which was quite unexpected, suddenly hats of all description were being passed amongst the tables. I never found out where they all came from. Whether a selection of headgear was kept permanently in the church for just such an occasion or a band of Mexican tourists had just been mugged outside the village.

The sun rose higher and burned the shade into smaller and smaller islands. Even with my hat I could feel the sun ablaze on the back of my neck. I had to keep putting my hand there to cool it down - it was either that or a piece of jambon. And I wasn't sure if the jambon would cook in its own fat and who wants to become known by his neighbours as the man who cooks bacon on his neck?

I tried moving my neck out of the sun by craning my head or leaning back but Shelagh kept giving me strange looks. Was I developing some strange affectation or about to pass out before the arrival of the second course?

Paella is a strange dish. However much you eat there always seems to be more left on the plate than when you started. All those shells and various pieces of marine detritus that seem to build up out of all proportion to the meat consumed. I've always considered it a dish to inspire new scientific theories on the conservation of matter. Far more potential than apples. Apples fall off trees - so what? Name a tree fruit that doesn't. But Paella? Not only could it feed the five thousand, it could house them afterwards. Pretty little houses made from shell fragments and bits of claw.

I was definitely getting too much sun and wine. Some people know when to stop when the room begins to rotate. Me, I wait until not only can I see housing estates made out of crayfish but I make an offer on the one on the corner.

I wasn't quite there yet. I think its roof needed attention.

It was about this time that I made my big mistake.

As we ran out of things to say about black and white cows and the weather, I started thinking about sport.

Not a good idea.

For many years I'd greeted the arrival of a new football season with the thought that perhaps this year I'd give it another go. Take it up seriously again, dig out the boots and get back into training.

And a few weeks later I'd think of a good reason why not to. It was cold or there was something I wanted to watch on TV or I felt a muscle twinge. And after all, there would always be next year.

A promise that gained less credibility as the years progressed.

But wine has the ability to rejuvenate - the mind, if not the body. I wasn't that old. I could still a play a bit, if I put my mind to it.