“Can I take my drone?” pleaded Jack, my husband, looking lovingly at his strange flying machine.
“Perhaps, but you’d better ask permission, some folks don’t like them at all,” I replied, instantly worried that he was going to start dive-bombing innocent revellers in his enthusiasm to capture the moment on film.
The question arose because of an annual event that was about to take place in our tiny village. A veritable dot on a landscape of French meadows and orchards, one is barely able to use up all fingers and toes when counting the population. But this weekend was going to be different, it was the Feu de la St Jean, (fire of St John) which attracts hordes!
So what on earth is the Feu de la St. Jean?
Some believe that the tradition was introduced to Europe by Celtic tribes around 3000 years ago. However, when Christianity became the official religion in France during the fifth century, pagan rites were shown the red card. They could not be allowed to continue. On the other hand, the French do like a good fire (a key feature of this event), so an artful compromise was required.
The Church of Rome, realising it wasn’t going to stop the headstrong rural communities from lighting up once a year, came up with an ingenious decision. They moved the pagan Summer Solstice festivity to coincide with that of St John the Baptist. This tactic was particularly brilliant because the two festivals both carry the symbol of light. One celebrates the sun, the other celebrates the prophet, John the Baptist, who symbolically opened the door to the light by announcing the coming of Jesus of Nazareth. Voilà!
Traditionally, a bonfire is lit using wood gathered by the youngsters of the village. Less health and safety conscious in those days, one of the customary rites was for young, unmarried people to jump over the bonfire if they wanted to find their soul-mate before the end of the year. It was also a rite of passage and acceptance for younger teenagers, who then became officially accepted into the group of bachelors. Equally, it was a way to bless the harvest to come. So, all in all, there was quite a lot going on.
In a village like ours where life is modelled on the rhythm of seasons and the weather, the logic of revelling in the Feu de la Saint Jean makes perfect sense. The main organiser is our dog walking pal Joel, aka le prof. A master of delegation, he stage manages the process like the conductor of an orchestra, directing his team players with poise and determination.
Building a bonfire
Jack’s job was wood supply man, which quickly became an exercise in anger-management. He spent several days under supervision, arranging then re-arranging planks in a particular order until le prof was satisfied that they were aesthetically pleasing. This was extremely testing for my short-tempered husband who insisted that a plank was a plank and why should it matter if one was prettier than the other. Fortunately, our language differences lent a hand which saved le prof from the niceties of his more acerbic remarks. Joel completely ignored Jack’s twitterings, doggedly pointing at timbers to be rejected and others to be subbed which were easier on the eye. Finally he was satisfied.
The next job was witch-construction. (I’m still somewhat lost about the legend regarding sorceresses, but I suspect it has something to do with banishing the evil spirits. Absolute bonus if that’s the case, one feels.) Le prof and the witch-construction crew did a marvellous job in building five corkers, but there was one worry. Joel was concerned about witch number three and her skirt of ribbons. I eventually persuaded him that it really didn’t matter that her colourful floaty skirt caught the breeze every now and again, revealing all, nevertheless he insisted on stapling a few strips to her wooden knees in the interests of modesty.
The day of the momentous event finally arrived. I was on table decorations, which brought with it highs and lows. The outstanding high was to be helped by my little mate Matteo. Son of a neighbour, and no doubt soon to become the cause of heart breaks amongst many a mademoiselle, he’s a stalwart companion when it comes to floral art.
The afternoon was spent gathering and arranging various blooms but we soon realised that we were undersupplied. This was a quandary. Suddenly Matteo had an excellent idea – why not snip a few from the village rose borders? No-one would notice and we could complete the job in double quick time. Well done that boy!
We crept out with our pannier and secateurs and began stealthily ferreting around the roses. Snipping here and there, we persuaded ourselves that we were simply tidying things up, and actually, performing a great service to the village. Unfortunately our logic wasn’t shared by everyone. On our return to the workstation we were met by a gentleman who is almost completely round and rather red in the face. This was a worry – we’d been rumbled by the village municipal plant man.
Monsieur looked disapprovingly at our posy-filled pannier, and started talking very fast and animatedly. Matteo stared, owl-eyed, the picture of innocence (which I should add he does awfully well) which left me, l'étranger, as perpetrator of the crime. Once again our language barrier lent a hand which enabled me to plead some level of blamelessness, backed up with a barrage of vraiment désolés (very sorrys). This eventually stopped monsieur, who was no doubt trying to understand what I was babbling.
Then there was a pause.
We watched nervously as he puffed out his chest, which caused him to look alarmingly like an inflatable beach ball. Aside from a potential pop, we had no idea what was going to happen next – this man was unpredictable at best.
Whatever I’d said seemed to hit the spot because, to our relief, he dissolved into a wobbling mass of giggles and started slapping his thighs hysterically. With tears of mirth cascading between his bristles he pointed at our efforts, declared they were "insuffisant" and encouraged us to pick more. There are times when my mauling of the French language does come in handy. That said, my comprehension level is never likely to be capable of unravelling the intricacies of the local sense of humour.
Mightily relieved that we weren’t going to banished we finished our job and I looked in on the catering team. Slaving away, making short work of heaps of salad mixings and couscous, the ladies were a dream-team to behold. I said my “à bientôts” and returned home to a happy husband. Le prof thought his idea to bring the drone was a great one!
Sangria with a twist
Despite rushing through my animal chores I was pushed for time. In my haste to get ready I tugged on the nearest set of clothes, accidentally choosing a pair of very tight shoes in the process. No matter, I thought, we wouldn’t be involved in any disco dancing that’s for sure.
When we arrived, throngs of party-goers were already pouring in – set on being thoroughly pagan for the night. Most adults made a bee-line for the extremely un-French sangria apéritif, while their children marvelled at the sorcières (witches) including the one with the skirt nailed to her knees. We had invited four friends to join us. They had never been before and were intrigued to learn what all the fuss was about. The French couple arrived promptly followed a little while later by our Italian friends, Melita and Carlo. They are usually fashionably late and always slightly flustered.
Poor Melita had just returned from work and was more frazzled than usual. She is a fruit sorter in a local apple farm and a big order had come in late on that day. Everyone had to work overtime to deal with it which meant that Melita was hot, tired and clearly very thirsty. She knocked back the first glass of sangria in double quick time, smacked her lips with satisfaction and declared it to be non-alcoholic. Before I could make the obvious correction, she followed up with two more in rapid succession.
The evening got underway in fine spirits, mostly aided by the sangria, which we were later told was laced with l’eau de vie, a highly-alcoholic colourless fruit brandy.
A sausage situation
We sat down at the long trestle tables not a moment too soon so far as my feet were concerned. Taking a moment to acquaint ourselves with our fellow diners and admire the floral decorations, we tucked into our starter of melon and ham. This was accompanied by chunks of bread, periodically lobbed in our general direction by Jean-Pierre, the local boulanger. He was followed by Jacques, who owns a local vineyard. Fortunately his idea of service is rather more elegant. Label-less bottles filled with red and rose wines where positioned at strategic intervals. The moment the level dropped below halfway the bottle would be whisked away and replaced with another. Everything was going to plan nicely until…
Our party atmosphere was abruptly interrupted by the electronic screeching sounds of feedback from the microphone. It was le prof and he had an announcement. Everybody listens when le prof has something to say. He delivered his message to the hushed audience like a seasoned master of ceremonies.
It seems that there had been a sausage glitch. Despite clouds of smoke coming from the coals, the barbecue was not hot enough, and our main course was still raw. Nobody wants to eat uncooked, chewy Toulousian specials so remedial action was called for and, as usual, le prof had everything under control.
The stage was lit up, music filled the salle des fête and the planned cabaret was brought forward a course. It was brilliant. A young troupe of actors entertained us royally with their pagan high jinks and superb acting, causing raucous laughter and wild applause as they cavorted about the stage. But as quickly as it began, it had to come to an end. The sausages were ready.
Yet more wine arrived, supplied once again by Jacques, who was had now taken on a rosy hue. This was followed rapidly by new supplies of bread, hurled from afar by Jean-Pierre, who looked as though it was time for someone else to take over. Called to order once more, we dutifully traipsed over to the buffet table to be served by the couscous-building team and actors-turned-waiters. The whole process ran like a well-oiled machine.
Most of us fell on our melange of Toulouse and red, spicy merguez sausages with gusto but there was one exception in our party. Jack is a die-hard English sausage lover and loftily considers the French version to be a disgraceful substitute. Worse still for the poor dear, he was saddled with a generous spoonful of couscous, which he assures me looks like maggots and probably tastes the same. With a doleful expression he bravely shovelled his meat mountain to one side, waded through his hill of mixed salad and chewed on his doorstep of bread. That done, he announced his intention to fire up the drone – which was most concerning.
It was getting dark now but I could still make out the incongruous shape of his flying machine as it hovered ethereally in the gathering gloom. Luckily his test-flight had gone largely unnoticed and was uneventful. He returned quickly, flushed with enthusiasm. It had worked like clockwork and was ready to capture the main event on film.
Soon after we were heralded once more by le prof. He battered his scratchy microphone and announced that it was time for us to witness the Feux de St Jean.
This required movement. I got up and immediately sat down again with a wince. To my horror I saw that my feet looked like bloaters and had swollen considerably inside my tiny shoes. Not a pretty sight at all. Jack stared quizzically at me as I staggered towards him.
“What’s wrong with you? Have you had too much to drink?”
“Not at all! It’s these shoes, they’re agony.”
“Oh right, what bad luck. Well you can’t take them off here, the gravel will shred your feet. Go and prop yourself up again that tree, while I start filming from the drone, you won’t be in the way there.”
Ignoring his supportive advice I tottered in step with Melita, who was decidedly glassy-eyed, walking as well as me and beside herself with excitement.
Pagan drums filled the air with their rhythmic beats, spotlit trees surrounding the bonfires cast crazy shadows on the ground – then the first flames curled their way around each of the five sorcières.
The music switched dramatically with split second timing as fireworks exploded around the pyres. Children gasped with excitement, thrilled by the scenes that were unfolding before them. The fires kindled and gathered intensity, somehow in time to the strange primitive music. We stared in wonder as the sorcières, one by one, were banished from the village in a cloud of smoke. Suddenly Melita grabbed my sleeve.
“UFO!” she gasped, pop-eyed, pointing towards the sky.
Obviously a universally understood term, I followed the direction of her trembling digit and realised what it was. Jack’s machine had taken to the skies again and was flying dangerously close to the burning effigies. Surely it would catch fire from there!
There wasn’t enough night left to try and explain the intricacies of drones to my sangria-soaked friend. Instead I placated her by explaining that it was only Jack. Oddly enough she accepted my response without comment.
By now the dark sky was filled with the flames of our five burning bonfires. The music changed again, this time there was a melodic feel to the tempo. Our troupe of actors burst onto the scene, grabbing spectators one after the other until they formed a dancing ring around the raging furnace. I tried my best to hide, but it was no good, someone grasped my hand and dragged me and my fat toes to join the solstice revellers. I staggered and stumbled around, trying to forget that I was in screaming agony as I joined in the cheers and hollas and delighted laughter of the crowd.
Fortunately the dancing didn’t last long. It was interrupted by a tremendous jet of blinding-white light that shot up from the earth. The fireworks had begun. Once again children and adults alike gasped in wonder and the thrilling light show. Purple explosions vied with red and orange sparkles, each cartwheeling across the skies in an extraordinarily spectacular way. Different formations had different sounds, some whizzing, others sputtering into life and most ending with a booming explosion. It was an amazing finale to fantastic evening.
Most of us hung around awhile after, absorbing the celebratory atmosphere. The youngsters returned to the salle des fête to prepare for the disco, the very thought of which caused my toes to surrender completely. Instead we said our goodbyes to our friends. They were overjoyed with their first attendance at this incredibly well-run event and pledged to come again next year.
Propped up by Jack, we began walking back to the car, turning one last time to glimpse the burning embers of the bonfires. I stopped quickly, nudging Jack to look properly. There, clear as anything, was an ancient grand-mère cheering raucously, encouraging a young grandchild to jump over the bonfire to the anguished sounds of “Oh, la, la” probably coming from the non-pagan mum. It was then that I realised Melita probably wasn’t the only one who thought the sangria apéritif was non-alcoholic.
It was another wonderfully memorable evening in our little corner of France thanks to our friends and in particular le prof - a conductor and master of ceremonies extraordinaire.
Here are some extracts from the drone footage.