Our neighbour invited us to join him and his friends to celebrate his birthday. We felt extremely honoured, but rather confused by the arrangements as the gathering was to take the form of drinks “a bonne heure”. We knew that this meant “early”, but precisely HOW early? Straight after breakfast was a distinct possibility, because whenever Steve gives him a lift into town first thing in the morning, he makes for the bar for a glass of red wine before tackling the shopping. Or would it be just before lunch? Or perhaps early evening? We decided to wait and see when the other guests turned up, and they drove up the lane just as the church bells were clanging at noon. Our neighbour kindly tapped on our kitchen window to make sure we joined in.
We have never actually seen inside his house before. It reminded me of St. Fagan’s near Cardiff, where you can wander into old cottages and they are furnished just as they would have been in the distant past. This house can hardly have changed over the last hundred years. Tiles have been laid over the earth floor, and a sink and cooker have been added, but the old fireplace looks just as it did when the house was built. It was the fashion in Brittany long ago to hang a piece of material over the huge lintel above the fire, and this is still in place. I wondered if it was his grandmother who had chosen the fabric and hung it there, or even his great-grandmother. A dark, heavy Breton sideboard and cupboard stand against the wall, probably filled with bowls and plates that have been used by many generations of his family, and during the 1950s someone added a kitchen table and chairs which would now fetch a fortune in a retro-vintage shop.
We sat around this table with the other guests, who made great attempts, with many nods and smiles, to understand my poor French. I explained that I had found French difficult at school. Vociferous nods – they had found English difficult at school also. I wished for the thousandth time that I had tried harder in French lessons, but somehow they never seemed relevant to my life (if only I had known…) Conversation was made even trickier by their thick Breton accents which sounded nothing like my French teacher’s clipped, perfect French.
“The Hundred Years’ War is over now,” Bernard was saying, “We are all friends now.” Much nodding and smiling.
“And we were good friends during both the world wars,” I added. More nods. “Everyone in Britain greatly admires your wonderful French Resistance. Beaucoup de courage.” They were clearly pleased by this (the Resistance was very active in our area and the locals are justifiably proud) but I refrained from telling them about ‘Ello ‘Ello.
Then Bernard frowned. “But… Joan of Arc…” he said. Their faces clouded, smiles disappeared, and rather accusing looks were sent in our direction. I hastily apologised on behalf of the entire population of fifteenth century England and this lightened the atmosphere a little, but however hard we try, there will always be Joan of Arc.
The drinks on offer looked powerful and fiery. I explained that I don’t drink alcohol, and asked for a verre de l’eau. The other guests stared at me in surprise and disbelief. Steve then added helpfully that I don’t eat meat or fish either, and there was much head shaking and shoulder shrugging. The English! Whatever next?
When it was time to go we shook hands warmly and said our thank yous, and then our neighbour and his male guests stood in a line outside the front door and relieved themselves copiously. A hot, English embarrassment flushed over me, swiftly followed by an amusing thought. Just imagine if Steve led our male guests outside to do this in our Devon street… It would inevitably lead to the involvement of the police, social services (in case any children happened to be looking out of a window at the time), the Herald Express, the local residents’ association and no doubt, in a couple of days, the Daily Mail.
But we dearly want to fit in; despite our buttoned-up Englishness, my vegetarianism and the horror of Brexit, we want our Breton neighbours to accept us one day as friends. Perhaps if we can all move on from Joan of Arc, we will get there in the end.