Saturday 6 February 2016

Grapeful for one's neighbours

Community spirit is very important in our part of France. This may seem strange because so many of us live in such isolated places, but perhaps that’s exactly why one’s neighbours are so precious.

Most of the folk here have known one another for years, many went to school together and practically everyone is related in some way. Jack, my husband, is convinced that most of them look similar which is not at all correct, but it does provide him with a convenient excuse for getting everyone’s names mixed up. So, with a mix such as this, one might expect the locals to behave in an insular way towards outsiders, but not a bit of it.

Within the first few weeks of arriving at our new home, invitations to soirees’ began to appear. Visitors turned up – just to say hello – and presents would mysteriously appear on our door step. At first we rarely knew who they were from because the giver was too coy to leave a message, but soon we were able to guess.

Today is no different. We continue to be treated with the same regular flow of interesting gifts, all of which have been grown or homemade. Most of these are absolutely delicious but some, such as the colourless bottles of eau de vie, take some getting used to. I'm not sure I ever will.

My synonym for this ghastly liquid is rocket-fuel.  (I suspect the American equivalent, for example, might be moonshine.) Mine is a term which I consider to be far more apt for a beverage that contains enough alcohol to burn a hole in one’s table, should a drop accidentally hit the surface. Quite how it is supposed to aid one’s health beats me. Nevertheless, it is a very popular digestif here, and we are very grateful indeed to the gift-givers for their thoughtfulness.

There are occasions, however, when we are all lucky and the visitor arrives when we are in. I say lucky, but actually it can rather depend on the person involved. Some people adopt the kiss-give-kiss-go routine whilst others prefer a lengthier meeting. I of course embrace each technique involved, but Jack is prone to becoming just a little twitchy when a visitor has become overly relaxed. Just such an occurrence happened recently.

It was mid-afternoon and I'd been out with the dogs. We'd enjoyed a nice long ramble in the forest and returned via the bird pens. I attended to my usual husbandry jobs with the pheasants and quail first, then stopped to have a gossip with the chickens. All chores done, I set off back to the house with my hands full of warm fresh eggs.

As I approached the kitchen door the dogs became excitable in a way that indicated we had company. Unfortunately I was too slow on the uptake. My following thoughts about controlling them and executing a civilised entry were quickly foiled by Max. He has recently been working on a technique to open the door single-pawed and succeeded at that moment. The pair of them bowled in ahead of me, and gave our visitors a welcome they would never forget.

Fortunately I already knew these delightful people. Jean-Luc and Elodie are country folk who have lived in a village close by for many years, and are well used to animals. Nevertheless, a muddy paw print or two on one’s Sunday best isn’t always a welcome addition.

I eventually peeled the dogs off our visitors, we performed our ritual series of kisses, and I joined them at the table. It was then that I glanced over at Jack. He looked absolutely exhausted, and judging by the number of empty coffee cups already in front of them, I could guess why.

Jean-Luc and his wife have been retired for a number of years. He is a tiny pixie of a chap and she dwarfs him in most ways, particularly with her bosom, which is tremendously ample. Both from farming stock, when he was a lad, Jean-Luc found that he had extremely green fingers and built up a successful fruit-growing business. Sales of his produce eventually extended across Europe which had enabled him to pass on the business to younger family members, and focus on his passion – citrus fruit.

I have always loved chatting to Jean-Luc because he has such a wealth of knowledge, but I’m afraid the same can’t be said of Jack. Unless there’s a machine part involved he has very little interest in the topic concerned, and particularly when it relates to plants. But there is another facet of Jean-Luc's personality that Jack has difficulty with. Jean-Luc is a terrific talker.

As a retired person he is entirely capable of captivating audiences for hours on end with his gems of knowledge. I, as one of his disciples hang on his every word, but Jack is prone to distance himself within seconds of the word agrumes (citrus) being mentioned. However, today was different. Without me there to help out, he had been well and truly trapped.

First things first, I asked if anyone would like a fresh coffee. Ignoring the vicious look and strangled protestations from Jack, I removed the debris and refreshed everyone’s cups. I also dug out some rather yummy chocolate biscuits, I knew that Elodie had a sweet tooth, she’d love these.

Once I’d settled back down to exchange local news, Jack explained the reason for their visit. Our conversation was conducted in French. “Look, darling, Jean-Luc and Elodie have been kind enough to bring us a present.”

“Oh how lovely,” I replied, beaming at our guests, who beamed back – savouring their moment of suspense. “and, erm… it’s…” I couldn’t see anything anywhere. Jean-Luc, sensing that his dramatic moment had come produced a bag full of grapefruits from his lap. “Voila!” he said plonking them on the table with a peal of pixie giggles.

“Ah how kind,” I cried, “I love grapefruit, you know I do. They look wonderful.” It was then that I made my first tactical error. “Have you had a good harvest this year?”

That was it, Jean-Luc was off. His nut-brown walnut-creased face shone with pride as he described every one of the 53 grapefruits he had reaped from his prize tree. Some had small blemishes, others were an abnormal shape but these things did not matter – the taste was exquisite for each. But this was just one tree. We all knew that he had several others. I couldn’t help myself, “well that’s excellent, Jean-Luc, I can’t wait to try these ones. What about your other trees? Have they been equally successful?”

Jean-Luc positively glowed with joy at the opportunity to discuss his leafy family and immediately launched into a detailed description of each one. For the next 45 minutes there was absolutely no need at all for anyone to say anything. All available air space had been taken up with Jean-Luc's fruit homilies. Every now and again Jack tried valiantly to interrupt with a concluding question, but eventually gave up as each was deftly batted away. Instead he rolled his eyes and sat back, temporarily defeated. Even the dogs had gone to bed. But the impact on Elodie was the most impressive.

Elodie and Jean-Luc have been married for over 50 years. She is a treasure of a lady, one of those people who has a radiant face that is filled with kindness and smiles, and experience from many years of doing good to others. She is also blessed with the patience of Job and has developed an excellent technique at dealing with her husband’s agrume stories.

Elodie was sitting next to Jean-Luc, but slightly out of his eye line. Jack and I were opposite. During a particularly captivating aside about lemon tree grafting I looked to Elodie to garner her opinion only to find that her eyes were tightly shut. This was embarrassing. I looked away quickly, but human nature being what it is, I looked again. This time she smiled beatifically, flickered an eye, and was off again. It seems that Elodie was a mistress of the power-nap.

I was extremely impressed with her serene tactics but sadly a little later she came somewhat unstuck. Sensing that Jean-Luc was far from finished, she roused herself gamely and stretched over for a chocolate biscuit. The house was warm so the coating was slightly tacky by now, but this didn’t seem to concern her one bit. I mildly wondered whether it may have been the warmth that contributed to her soporific state too. It’s hard to say.

Elodie sat back with her partially nibbled biscuit positioned delicately between her finger and thumb, and nodded off again. I watched with mounting horror as the melting Cadbury’s chocolate finger gradually began to slither through her fingers, dangling enticingly above her cleavage. It was one of those dreadful moments of etiquette where a decision has to be made. Does one alert her and in so doing make it clear to her husband that she had not been hanging on to his every word? Or does one hope that she wakes up and recaptures her biscuit in time? Sadly I was too late.

The biscuit slid between her fingers and straight down her cleavage. It was a perfect shot. I was absolutely mortified and quickly fixed my attentions on Jean-Luc. He had now moved to the pithy subject of kumquats, a particular favourite of his, so there was no telling how long he’d take. Fortunately it was just the break that Elodie needed.

Out of the corner of my eye I saw that she had been roused by the disappearance of her chocolate finger. Instead of making a girlie outburst she dealt with the situation like a pro. This had obviously happened before. She quickly produced a hankie, gently fishing it out and despatching it in one mouthful. A couple of dabs in the appropriate place later and she was off again, only to be roused a few minutes later by a tiny snore. I was terribly impressed.

Jean-Luc finally ended his discussion, which was unsurprising because he must have been talking non-stop for close on three hours by now and was becoming rather hoarse. He smiled, geniality itself, and asked if we had any more questions. Poor Jack was in a completely numb state by this stage and simply wagged his head in resignation. It’s true that I could have listened to more, he was such an interesting man, but just didn’t think Jack could cope. I shook my head too. Elodie, on the other hand, was now perfectly alert and fully refreshed. She turned to her husband with an expression of pride, always ready to hear more if he had a mind to offer.

However, in the end Jean-Luc decided that they really must be on their way. He still had to treat an ailing lemon tree and that could take time. As they were on their way out he suddenly turned and said, “Ah but I have one more present for you. Follow me please.”

We followed, intrigued by what this might be. I began to babble about not needing any more, they had already been so generous as it was, but he brushed my words aside with a grin and pointed. There it was – sitting in the middle of the drive – a perfect young grapefruit tree. “You see,” he said, “when you first came to live here you told me that you liked grapefruit trees. I listened to this and I have grown this one especially for you.”

I couldn’t believe my eyes - even Jack was impressed. But it wasn’t just the beauty of the tree that captivated my emotions it was the genuine, kind thoughtfulness of these people. Our thanks could never be enough.

Sensing our gratitude only served to make them happier still and they trundled off with promises to return once Jean-Luc's cherry crop had ripened. He was certain we’d love those too.

The significance of this story is not so much the gifts that were given, it is the attitude of the givers. It provides you with another typical example of what living with neighbours in this part of France is all about. Our experiences so far are of a small community who look after and support one another, give when they can, never expecting anything in return. We are profoundly moved by genuine kindnesses like this.