In England it was simple if you wanted to know if a fella fancied you: You would go out with a group of lonely women, sit in a wine bar all night long, getting a little tiddly on huge, but nevertheless overpriced, glasses of Merlot. After a shared platter of battered left-overs, you end up wishing you hadn’t bothered to leave the warmth of your hearth, just to listen to the drone of the over-the-hills-and-far-away brigade as talk turns to their youth and all the fun they had at the Kibbutz and who slept with who and how hilarious it all was! Then they turn to the present day reality and it’s more like arriving at a platform with no trains… Just an arrivals board offering, a 6am ride to Hythe or a 6.30am shag to Dagenham. At this point your attention turns to the gaggle of estate agents, who have become so raucous since their arrival at 6pm that you begin to wonder if they’ll all take off on their transmigratory journey south at any moment. In a mood of total despair, dejection and disinterest, you begin to hope that at least one of those fat-bellied gentlemen propping up the bar, into his 17th pint of beer – a few dribbles on the protruding area of his pinstripe shirt just for good measure – would be either brave enough, or ‘arsed’ enough, to come over and tell you that he wants to spend the rest of his life with you. He eventually does come over , though not in a straight line, so it is uncertain as to whether he is heading for the loo, the door or your company. He does talk of his undying love… for his ex, for 30 slurred minutes! Then, as if he’d forgotten to buy a copy of Playboy on the way from the office, says, ‘would you fancy coming back to mine for a night cap darling’? Those vacuous words, spurting from the yeasty lips that sit beneath his big red nose did not inspire me. At that point, the dimmed lights brighten to the point where instant sobering wakes you out of your catatonia, you scrape around on the floor for a few minutes looking for your other shoe, lean forward and poke the portly fella in his fat belly and tell him to go back to his wife because he’s, frankly, lucky to have anyone at all that would endure him. You know you look a mess… but you know he looks a bigger one! Then you stagger, flip, slide and flop across the room, hoping that you can make it to the door before you vomit. I wonder if a French man could work his charm on such a lush? In fact I have wondered often (and hence my arrival now in France) whether the seduction of our Gallic cousins could end my need for those forays into the dark world of lipstick, slapstick and lippy-slapper nights of frivolousness. The wastelands of Balham!
But this is France, and something quite unexpected has come to my notice. Where I had just pictured every woman to be either chic or froufrou and every man to be a natural charmer and seducer, I find that in fact this stereotype is far from the truth. Here in the Dordogne I am finding a very rugged kind of French man and a rather independent, laissez-faire French femme. Now when I say rugged, don’t go imagining Burt Reynolds in Hustle… I mean rough as in, calloused hands, hairy nostrils and an outsized amount of weather-beaten skin holding it all in. French men are either very skinny or they have guts to match their cockiness… unjustifiably large. (No, of course there are some handsome ones… just not in my neck of the woods). Within a few weeks of arriving here, I found a rather friendly young man enquiring, quite out of the blue, if I like champignons. Seemed like a reasonable question, so I replied, ‘oui, ils sont bonnes’… ‘pourquoi?’ His reply was beyond my ability, so I just shrugged and smiled.. perhaps in hindsight for too long.. (the smiling that is – as had I shrugged for too long it would have been sheer comedy!). The next morning, early, I noticed my voisin setting off in thigh length galoshes and a wide flat basket across his arm. Come evening, he arrived at the door with a plate of nicely washed girolles – these are small, pale but very tasty little mushrooms. I say, ‘merci beaucoup – tu es tres gentil!’ Then came the first use of four little words, whose content, I have come to realise, in no way indicates their meaning… ‘tu aime des ceps?’! Me: ‘Oui?’ The question mark simply used to indicate “I think so”, but it could also mean ‘Yes? Who doesn’t?’ I really had no idea, as I felt to say yes, without the question mark, might mean my signature on a huge bill for very expensive mushrooms. To say ‘no’ might be offensive and result in my non-acceptance into this village. My new friend arrives with a very large cep the next evening. I have in the meantime googled ‘ceps’ and found that they are the king of mushrooms and much prized in France. ‘Oh, merci… combien?’ A bit of confusion, and then he says, (more very significant words – 5 this time).. ‘il est de mon coeur!’ OK.. so I accept said gift and take it indoors, look at the green underside and, not wishing to leave France and the world so soon, I pop it in the poubelle (dustbin, for those of you ‘pats’ who have not yet ventured off your island). Well, that wasn’t so bad afterall. At least it wouldn’t have been if a local chef hadn’t told me that it all depends on the tone of green… some are ok to eat! I had probably just thrown 30 euros in the bin! Then she said, ‘Il est un amant,’ and began some very suggestive purring and winking. I actually thought she said, ‘it (or he) was a mint’. I smiled and left… bemused. And since that slightly surreal experience, my neighbour has ignored me. But the reality of my ‘faux pas’ has since become embarassingly clear to me. A further two French gentlemen (not at the same time!) have called on me and made enquiries as to whether I like ceps. I have accepted both gestures with ladylike zeal, having felt a increasing desire for this free Boletus.
But then, I was outside sweeping my steps a couple of weeks ago (a new addition to my routine), when a rather aging, roughly clad farmer started to talk to me about my house, saying he knew it when he was young etc. We talked (I mostly listened and nodded) for a good 10 minutes and then, as if to catch me unawares, he slipped into his soliloquy, ‘tu aime des ceps?’ I returned from my revelry. I had vowed to accept no more ceps ,as it seemed unfair to have such a king’s feast without paying a price. I thought ‘no,’ but I replied ‘Oui?’ Then I sat back and waited, like a cat who had invited a mouse in for tea. Sure enough, just as it was getting dark, the beast who had been drooling from his nostrils earlier in the day, arrived at my door in a suit and with a flat bottomed basket containing 3 good sized ceps. I was impressed at their size… this was a more substantial gift than previous suitors, although perhaps he needed to sell his wares more desperately than the younger amants. Insisting that he should cut the stalks off for me, incase they were bad, he stepped into the kitchen. The dog at this point did not seem to know whether he was friend or foe, so just sat and watched what was going on. (Note to self – teach dog to recognise intruders!) Stalks removed, and after a bit of noise about how to wash them and ‘pas beaucoup d’ail,’ I said thankyou and went towards the door. ‘A kiss Madame?’ Well, to me the question mark signified that I could reply with ‘yes’ or’ no’… so I said ‘no’, but he heard ‘yes’ and leaned forward for his reward. I offered my cheek (French style) and then moved him again towards the door. At the door (the dog was finally getting a bit suspicious and had started to circle the farmer’s legs by now), he leaned in for another go. He stepped forward, I stepped back, I circled round behind him, and we dosey doed. He twisted to find my lips… the dog was running anxiously around us both. Yet another rejection, and I had got the door open now.. the dog circling and sniffing…. I said ‘merci bonne nuit!’ He leaned in for one final, perilous try: I gently pushed him out, the dog came between his legs and he fell face down onto my verandah! I spent the rest of the evening, after sharing my illicit gains with my neighbour, feeling bad that I hadn’t taken better control of his situation. I have an inefficient Mother.. she warned me not to talk to strangers but didn’t go into further detail. “Never accept mushrooms from a stranger”, would have been helpful! I felt nothing but shame and regret… ‘Why didn’t you just say no!’ ‘You knew what he wanted, somewhere in your deep psyche, you should not have let him give you such a prize – you’re nothing but a tease!.’ I felt that now, after accepting the offerings of 4 amants, I had become a Cep Prostitute! Oh merde, I must start to find a way to redeem myself. I shall never, ever again consume a free fungus… no matter how bulbous. Je suis en manque. I’m going cold turkey!
[I wonder if there are any turkey farmers around…]