It was the Lavit fair, the first main social event of the year and I was ecstatic. Jack, my husband, less so. He claims to hate fairs.
“Oh, come on, Jack. You’ll be fine when you get there. There are always lots of interesting machines to poke around with, you’ll love it.”
“No, I won’t. It’ll be full of people who aren’t looking where they’re going, and you’ll spend one of half the day gossiping. The other half you’ll spend clucking over useless goods, wanting to buy things we already have, or don’t need.”
“I promise not to. But I do want to buy some plants.”
“My point exactly!”
“One can never have too many plants, Jack.”
I finally got him to agree by playing the ‘my knee is too crocked to carry heavy items’, trump card.
We took my sister, Di, along and arrived at around 10 am to find the three-tiered, bijou town already teeming with fun-lovers.
For no particular reason we started with the middle street, which had shrunk to a quarter of its normal width. Market traders lined either side, their stalls bursting with intriguing goods. Most had spilled onto the road forming highly effective booby traps. Those entangled were obliged to stop and examine the display, spurred on by the persuasive stallholders. It worked like a charm.
Cheese makers offered specialty concoctions from several species of plant and animal. Some were soft and gooey, others were hard and flaky. Cheeses with bits in, others lined with veins of mould, plus there was another lot that smelled like stinky socks. These were in a class of their own.
Samples were proffered on the end of skinny forks as enticements to would-be buyers. ‘Goût!’ ‘Goût!’ the vendors cried joyously, wafting a cube of something pungent under our passing noses. With those banks of goodies it would have been easy to fill our paniers within the first 20 metres, but we resolutely resisted temptation and continued browsing.
We had obviously found the foodie section. There were stalls laden with bread, honey, olives, chillies and garlic. Imagine the deliciously conflicting pongs.
We passed a gentleman from Spain selling cooked meat from the leg of an indistinguishable creature. We had no idea what it was, but it was proving very popular. We watched for a moment as he slashed wafer thin slivers of meat off the limb with a sword Zorro would have been proud of. Tiny tasters were harpooned and the sword-tip poked in the general direction of onlookers. Piffling issues such as health and safety were of no consequence here.
Thus far, we had been keeping a relatively steady pace. Jack was coping well on the whole, and only moaned once when he received a glancing blow from an over-excited lady with a particularly long loaf under her arm. Swinging it around like the limb of a windmill was doing it no good at all as each collision caused more damage. It would be no more than a bread roll by the time she got home.
Then Di spotted the macarons. My sister loves macarons.
We ground to a halt. An agonising ten minutes passed as she, eyes as large as saucers, cooed and twittered over the multi-coloured display of chubby hamburger-shaped sweetmeats. I chided Jack for getting impatient. It was everyone’s day, I explained, I was certain she wouldn’t be much longer.
Sadly, Di found the creator of the little discs and delighted herself (and to an extent the chef) by trying to guess, in French, the flavours of each one. Might the pink ones be raspberry? The yellow ones orange? Surely the rich green ones would be kiwifruit? She was completely diverted by the mystery of it all. Jack quite clearly couldn’t care a jot and I was beginning to feel the same way.
There was a relatively iffy looking sweets and candies stall next door so I tried to distract her by pointing at a trunkful of liquorice allsorts. Sadly my wheeze failed. The mistress of indecision, she pooh-poohed my suggestions and agonised over which macaron she might buy. After the sixth change of mind, Jack cracked. He grabbed two at random, bought them and plonked them in Di’s hand.
“There,” he glared, “cadeau. Can we get on now please?”
We continued to the end of the middle street, fighting our ways through the ever-growing masses. Di was pouting a little and, still in denial about her apparent lack of alacrity, but this didn’t last long. She’s a cheery soul and there were plenty of display items to re-ignite her interest.
Then the theme changed. We had chanced upon the technical section.
Jack entered into a dreamlike state as we found an impressive display of what seemed like Lilliputian steamrollers and tractors. Despite being tiny, they were all in perfect working order. Oily cogs and springs gleamed in the hot sun, causing Jack to pause, and launch into a gleeful engineering lecture. Of greater interest to me, though, was the collection of industrial machines beyond.
19th century kilns, knife sharpeners, rope-makers and clog makers. Each was either being operated, or fiddled with, by an expert in costume.
“Would I like to have a go at making a clog?” asked a wizened old chap, as he thrashed around with a particularly mean-looking chisel.
“No, not for me thank you,” I replied, suddenly bashful. I’d much rather watch the master at work.
The next display was particularly curious. A trestle-table was covered with a variety of instruments, some of which dated back to the 15th century. Our job here was to guess the function of each. There was an ancient sextant, a candle holder and a thumb screw – that one was pretty obvious. The gentleman placed two pieces of formed iron in my hand.
“Devinez ce qu'ils sont!” he demanded, asking me to try and guess what they were.
Di and I pored over the ancient devices and then it came to me. There was a click as I slid the slim piece into the larger housing. It was an extraordinarily shaped padlock. Suitably impressed by my response, our jolly gent waved us away, ready to wow the next visitors to his stand.
We had been at it for a while now and decided it was time to eat. Much to our chagrin, Jack steadfastly refused to sample any of the street food. There were woks galore, each one filled with something slightly different, each equally tasty-looking and all smelling divine.
Pouf! None of that for us. Noooo, Jack had spotted a burger van half a kilometre away and frog-marched us briskly towards his goal. It’s just as well long-loaf lady wasn’t in the way; her bread would have been reduced to crumbs in our bow wave.
Sadly our timing was out. The last burger had just been sold, so we ended up with twice re-fried chips instead. It was one of those meals that kept on giving a long time later, but not quite in the intended way.
Replete with stodge, we temporarily parted company. Jack returned to the technical area, and Di and I headed off to find our promised cheap-as-chips plants. We were directed to the first tier for these and found ourselves surrounded by yet more gastronomes. Delicious smells pervaded our noses, taunting our taste buds, but it was too late – our tummies were full.
Raucous music started up behind us. We turned to be faced by a group of travelling ghouls and witches. I have no idea what their purpose or story was, but they cackled their way through an eerie tune in great humour.
It was early afternoon now and progress was somewhat slow for several reasons. Meeting people we knew meant lots of kisses and a friendly chat. There were emergency halts as someone in front decided to browse, or was apprehended by a taunting ghoul. It was all part of our French fair.
We finally made it to the plant area. Ironically, gorgeous though they may have been, they weren’t what we were after at all. But it was difficult to be disappointed that day, and especially in view of our next discovery.
We found a fritter man. He was creating bite-sized flatties with secret ingredients which smelled stupendous. Full or not, these were not to be resisted. We followed our noses, made a couple of speed-buys, and devoured what can only be described as taste-sensations. Quite honestly, I haven’t much idea what was in them, but they were heaven.
We tracked back to all-things-diesel and, after a bit of ferreting around, found Jack in the beer tent.
He was in shock.
“What’s wrong with you?” I asked, concerned as to why he should be rabidly swatting himself.
“Look!” he hissed, pointing at the tent canvass.
“Have you been stung by something?”
“No! Look at that bloke. He’s just lashed me with his hair. Bloody hell, I could have suffocated with that lot all over me. Urgh!”
It was then that I understood the reason for Jack’s latest attack of xenophobia. A young man had rearranged his magnificent mane of extra-long dreadlocks as he had passed by, momentarily cloaking Jack in the process.
“Oh that. Wow, how impressive. Never mind, darling, you look fine.”
Fortunately, we were saved from any further anguished moans by the sounds of baying dogs. I knew there was a hunting hound display somewhere, and I can’t think why it took me so long to drag us all there. We shooed Jack out of the beer tent and headed to the bottom tier and animal magic.
There were 20 or so picket fence enclosures, each containing a small group of hunting hounds. Griffon bleu Gascognes, beagles, teckels, bernois, you name them they were there. Some were lapping up the attention, others looking hot and bothered in the afternoon sun – all being watched over by a stern-looking huntsman.
It’s fair to say I probably took longer than my allocated browse-time with these dogs, but you know how it is. I could easily have taken one or two of those smilers home with us.
Di skilfully diverted me to a line of what looked like pit-ponies. Not quite Shetlands, the rotund little guys were saddled and ready to provide rides. Jack has never been desperately interested in equine pursuits. His one and only ride confirmed his distaste for any form of transport that lacks adequate brakes or steering and, even worse, makes decisions independently of the driver. This finished off any minute interest he might have had in horse riding. However, in this case, the ponies looked a much more reliable form transport than the aged Thomas the Tank Engine that had been coughing and spluttering its passengers through the streets all day. But Jack would have none of it. He’d become absorbed by what was going on at the other end of the leafy tier.
A police dog display of all things.
We joined the throng lining a rope enclosure. A naive young man, quite possibly recently plucked from the bar, had been pressed into service. His job was to play the villain with what looked like a strap-on child’s mattress attached to his leg. I suspect he may have thought it was a great way of impressing his girlfriend, but one look at the slavering beast on the end of a flimsy rope changed all that in an instant.
A whistle blew and we all watched, agog, as the dog plunged towards the villain, dragging his handler behind. My goodness these dogs are powerful! The animal connected with such ferocity it was all the poor lad could do to remain standing. Fortunately he was unscathed, but it took quite some time to unlatch the attacker from his leg. Jack, who had perked up considerably, decided it was excellent entertainment, and fully in line with the French interpretation of Brussels’ public liability laws.
More uncertain volunteers were cajoled into service by drunken mates, with similar results. Then the dog was changed for an arm attacking specialist. This one was even more fearsome. At first, the handler couldn’t even part it from its toy – an incongruous blue teddy. Even more unnerving was the piece of protective material handed to the quivering volunteer. It resembled a fat oven glove. We all feared the worst as the whistle sounded. I expect the atmosphere at Roman gladiatorial encounters may have been similar.
Something in the dog’s brain exploded at the sound of the shrill peep. Dropping its toughened rubber teddy, it hurled itself in the general direction of the perp. Luckily, sense prevailed. At the last moment the lad stuck out his padded arm as the dog leapt at him. What a great connection! A brief tussle ensued as the handler tried to disconnect the dog from the material, but it wasn’t having any of it. With a panic-stricken expression, the youth de-velcroed himself and tottered out of the arena. He was physically unscathed, but unlikely to volunteer again any time soon.
We decided we’d probably seen enough. So far there had been no blood lost, but since we were moving up the body, there could be no further guarantees if a head specialist was produced.
Our trip to the fair was over. We said our goodbyes to a musical clown and headed back to the car. Ironically we had no plants, which made Jack happy. Di still clutched her two macarons, which made her happy and I’d spent lots of time fussing over dogs, which made them (and me) happy. All-in-all it had been another lovely day in our corner of France.