A Load Of Old Codgers
When you fall in love common sense flies out of the window. This is how it was for David and Doris Johnson when they found a down-at-heel mini chateau in the heartland of France. A three year restoration began - and with it a journey of discovery.
There is an annual event sponsored and organised by the local commune. It is the Repas des Aines – the old codgers’ lunch. For us this is where the process of integration really began.
As I was of retirement age I got an invitation which was also generously extended to my ‘parents’. As the average age of those attending would be perhaps 70, I did not anticipate that many parents would attend – although they would, of course, be most welcome. The truth is that ‘parent’ has a wider definition in France: it means ‘relative’.
Well, the commune certainly knew how to look after us old codgers. The idea is to give us enough food at one sitting to keep us going all winter.
We began with aperitifs and petits fours, then it was traditional potage – vegetable soup – with Bordeaux wine. We were sitting close to old Maurice, the doyen of the hunt, who demonstrated how to keep the wine flowing. Whenever a bottle was empty, he picked it up, tapped it loudly with his spoon, and another one appeared. Not even Paul Daniels can do that.
I think we were on bottle four or five when the vol-au-vents arrived and I had lost count by the time we tucked into Langue de boeuf à la Reine sauce piquante (Cow’s tongue in a spicy sauce). I was now feeling full and rosy cheeked. But this was not a repast for the faint-hearted. The next course was local lamb with haricot beans which was followed by cheese with lettuce and dressing. Finally, the main part of the meal was rounded off with strawberry gateau and a sweet white wine. I tried to identify the wine by reading the label but found the lettering was out of focus.
Four hours after the meal had begun we were served coffee and liquors and by then I had the confidence to rattle along in French. Nobody seemed to mind the odd linguistic slip. They patted me on the back and smiled.
I knew that wild boar remained in pockets of forest and I had also read somewhere that there had been sightings of bear in France’s mountainous fringes. I asked old Maurice about this.
Maurice is an octogenarian and, although his six foot frame is rather hunched, he is as lithe as many men 30 years younger. For at least 50 years he has maintained his reputation as a premier huntsman and spirited joker.
He shrugged his huge shoulders and filled his glass. Then he boomed aloud.
‘Monsieur Johnson wants to know if we have bears here in Charente.’
‘Oui certainement Monsieur,’ said one voice.
‘But not so many today,’ said another.
‘But you still have them?’ I asked.
‘Mais oui, Monsieur,1 said another man, ‘but they are, as we say, protégé.’
‘Protected species,’ I said helpfully.
‘And have any of you seen a bear? I mean recently.’
‘Certainement Monsieur,’ said Maurice, ‘young François here escaped an attack only last week. Is this not true V
Another grizzled hunting veteran rose unsteadily to his feet at the other end of the table. He was fully sixty years of age and flushed with wine. The epithet ‘young’, I was later to learn, was used to distinguish him from his father and grandfather who shared the same Christian name.
He hesitated for a moment and began:
‘I was on the small hill beyond the ford. I was watching a buzzard making her nest. And then, there he was – standing no further from me than you are, Monsieur.’
He became silent. Everyone looked at me. I knew I was expected to contribute.
‘And how did you escape?’ I asked.
He had anticipated this.
‘I dare not climb a tree, Monsieur, for the bear he can climb better than me. I ran, Monsieur. I ran like the rabbit from the fox. Down the hill’
All those around me were nodding their heads. There was special import in ‘down’.
‘Down the hill?’ I asked.
There were smiles around the room now. Knowing, I thought.
‘Monsieur,’ he said, ‘I can tell you do not truly know the chasse. The bear is big and strong but he is not well balanced.’
‘Yes, the legs at the back are powerful. Like Mercedes Benz he drives from the rear. He is very fast up the hill’
‘He is a clown, Monsieur. His front legs are short and not so strong. When he runs down the hill he falls. Sometimes he will turn over altogether. Arse over head. It is not elegant, Monsieur.’
I was trying to picture this. I could not do so other than in cartoon images.
‘And so you see, Monsieur,’ François concluded, ‘if you meet a bear, do not climb a tree and do not run up the hill.’
‘Run down, like the rabbit from the fox,’ I said.
‘That is correct, Monsieur.’
‘Thank you,’ I said.
Françgois took his seat and began to fill his glass. There was silence for some moments. Then one or two people began to giggle. Finally there was a torrent of laughter.