with Norman Longworth
(Taken from the one-day-to-be-published ‘Conflent Tales’)
Here in the Conflent we know a thing or two about celebrating. We seem to do little else. May is the month when the South of France downs tools so that it can better prepare for a summer of active hedonism in the Midi. May-day is quickly followed by VE day by Ascension Day by Pentecôte, each of them a wonderful excuse to ‘faire le pont’, that is to use up the days between the actual fête day and le weekend as an extra holiday. After all, it’s hardly worth going in to work for just one or two days is it?
Thus, as sweet-showering April gives way to a work-free May, the festivals begin in the Conflent villages. Each village, and there is a lavish abundance of them, has its own Saint’s day festival, and those that unfortunately fall in the winter make up for it by holding festivals in the summer time too. It’s a matter of honour to attract the most tourists to your celebration. These summer festivals are usually weekend long celebrations of music, eating and drinking with the odd kermesse and a few petanque competitions thrown in.
The music is loud, very loud. My-God-you-should-hear-it loud, so don’t forget to bring your ear-plugs. Oh and bring the wife, mistress, parents and kids as well – they’d love it if only for the noise. Here’s how it works.
For the Friday evening overture, the rock band piles its biggest and most ear-splitting ghettoblasters one on top of the other in the village square. There until 10 pm they sit in a silent and often eerie contrast to the ancient stones of the surrounding buildings. Ten pm arrives and the silence is abruptly shattered. The band arrives, pipes in a few electronically enhanced chords by way of welcome and then launches into a frenzy of noisy motion. It stays that way until two or three o clock in the morning, while the happy but deafened villagers caper and prance like cats on hot coals. The older, and wiser, take up station behind the stage. One number blends into another until it seems that the actual notes are irrelevant. Teeny-boppers, young mums and dads, older and should-be wiser heads all hop, jig, skip and swing in a seventh heaven of ecstasy.
People communicate their basic requirements – would you like to dance with me, I badly need a drink, that sausage looks extra-ordinarily tasty – by sign language. But it is all great fun for everyone. The houses vibrate alarmingly, the food tables groan extravagantly and the local wine flows abundantly. The youngsters dance the ear-splitting night away, the middle aged try energetically to recreate their faded youth. The village wrinklies, well equipped with the wisdom of age, smile on indulgently – they are probably now understanding how they came to be so deaf. And they know only too well what village festivals can do to the body. In the distance, not only the village, but the whole valley, rocks rhythmically to the music of the festival.
Saturday morning is usually silent – not merely in contrast to what has gone before but largely because of it. The middle-aged rockers of the night before lie in their beds, every movement of their aching bodies emphasising the mentally painful realisation that confronting the passing of time demands a high toll fee; the youngsters lie in their beds because they are youngsters and that is what youngsters do, and only the wrinklies move timelessly and wordlessly about the village, grateful for the luxury of an unaccustomed silence. They can’t hear a thing and the flashing lights have played havoc with their eyes, but .. well, that’s part of being old, isn’t it?
But that does not last very long. In the afternoon all is bustle again. It is the time of the petanque competition, when all the brave macho men, dressed in a variety of hats, show their prowess at throwing metal balls in the proximity of each other in the village boulodrome. The pointeurs project their boules hopefully to a position somewhere near the cochonet (translated, and regarded, as ‘little pig’), and the tireurs do their best to destroy the pretty patterns they make. Everything is serieux – the loss of an end is a catastrophe or a desastre, the winning of it a triomphe. French male pride is at stake and the prize is la gloire for yet another year.
Until quite recently women did not enter this contest – it would not even have occurred to them to do so in a male-dominated village society. Then, one or two of the more brave and liberated female souls tried to enter and were of course banned. But even in this remote spot the malign influence of the modern world cannot be denied access, and the petanque competitions are now grudgingly open to all. Even étrangers may enter. And so the rules are rigged to have preliminary rounds in the hope that this will lead to an early elimination of the running sore of women and étrangers, thus enabling our heroes to continue as before. More often than not this ploy works, but it has been known for either or both to continue into the final rounds, and, horror of horrors, some étrangers have had the temerity to win against the odds.
If they are male, this is gritted-teeth acceptable. But the idea that a female, worse a female étrangère, might win is anathema. The shock to the collective male village ego would engender such a deep sense of shame that it would ruin the whole festival weekend To my knowledge this has not yet happened, but it can now only be a matter of time before the last vestiges of village masculine dignity are torn to shreds by the new enlightened world order.
The afternoon competition done and the annual champions acclaimed once more, the Saturday evening festivities repeat the pattern of the previous evening’s excesses – loud music, frantic dancing, copious food and free-flowing wine.
Sunday morning is a time for reflection. The village awakens with the retribution of a mass headache and goes to church in search of spiritual solace, tranquillity and grace. The pews are full of serially throbbing heads and aching bodies, betrayed only by the half-closed eyes and the occasional grimace of distress. But they must attend because, even at this painful time, tradition obliges the priest to bless the whole festival and to dispense low-cost and high-profile communion and forgiveness to an unusually quiescent congregation.
But afterwards, the power of prayer once more demonstrates its capacity to surmount human weakness. Now sanctified and shriven, the men of the village organise a grillade, or perhaps even the traditional Catalan version of this, the cargolade. This repast entails the immolation of hundreds of escargots over a charcoal fire. A British-educated stomach might begin to get alarmed at this, especially after the experience of the previous two days. Buckets and buckets of unlucky arthropods are collected weeks before the festival. Leaves are overturned, walls are examined, for slow-moving objects within three kilometres of the village. There is no hiding place despite all their efforts to blend into the village scenery. Those that escape, and there must be some to act as the Adams and Eves of next year’s party, are probably brainier than most of the villagers. Those that don’t are subjected to a diet of thyme and milk to cleanse them of any waste or toxic matter.
For the snails this is time of peace and reflection when food and drink no longer has to be laboured for. But the reckoning is at hand. The unfortunate nemiatoads are then spread out on a metal net to prepare them to meet their doom. As the flames complete their culinary task, it is now time for the younger men of the village to demonstrate their uninhibited masculinity by eating them in bountiful quantities. The average Briton might think that one is too many – but for these young men, eager to prove their macho credentials to the opposite gender, 50, 100, 150 is normal. Some have been known to eat more than 250 snails at one sitting, thus demonstrating to all and sundry a) their staying power, b) their potency and c) their stupidity.
Females tremble at such feats of voracity, but they have little need to worry, since any aphrodisiac attribute the snails may have had is soon dissipated by the inevitable effects of over-indulgence. Full stomach never won fair lady – and certainly not one full of creatures that produce slime trails, ’twas ever thus. The young men fade miserably, sometimes urgently, from the scene. For the wiser villagers the cargolade continues in more sedate fashion with pork chops and the spicy sausages called merguez, which, again if consumed in too large a quantity, can have much the same effect as the snails.
Before the last of the festival hops, there is a performance of the Sardane, the traditional dance of the Catalan regions. For this, the larger villages will hire a cobla, a group playing the traditional pipes and instruments of the region. The smaller ones will use scratchy records played on an ancient gramophone set – the type grandma used to have. The Sardane is not an easy dance for the uninitiated. It is performed in a circle in which people join hands, men’s supporting the ladies. It starts with four basic simple steps, hands joined by the sides. After 84 beats (one must learn to count before dancing the Sardane) the arms are raised above head height and the dance proper commences with a complex series of steps repeated over and over again.
As it reaches its climax the music subtly changes to a more vibrant rhythm, and an animated high-stepping commences. This too is performed within a similarly complex pattern of steps but the trick is to give the impression of temporarily floating on air, everyone landing at the same time. . It isn’t easy. It is an impressive sight when done well, though village festivals are not always the perfect stage for precision.
Men and women dance together unselfconsciously, justly proud of their terpsichorean heritage. It is a beautiful and timeless expression of a whole nation and one hopes that it will survive the predations of these cynical times. Even in this frenetic day and age the local towns and villages organise Sardanes in the evening so that workers can indulge their tradition on their way home. . It is difficult to imagine that happening outside the Westminster underground station or the Greenock shipyard at knocking-off time. Often, unsuspecting tourists are dragged into the fray, their clodhopping efforts to match the steps of their tutors contrasting strongly with the delicate and elegant steps of the cognoscenti. Each August, the town of Ceret over the hill organises a popular annual competition. The 28th festival of the Sardane this year attracted more than 100 teams from schools and villages all over the Pyrenees-Orientales département, and beyond from Spain.
However, back to the Conflent village festival. It ends, as it began with an ear-splitting rave-up. Those with energy remaining – the tennis players, the under-30s, the hyperthyroids and the simply masochistic – party the night away, happy in the knowledge that not only are they having the best time since the last one, and before the next one, but also that the whole valley is reverberating with them in their pleasure.
And that has been the Conflent way of celebrating over the centuries. While sound technology may have inflated the decibel count in modern times, there is still inherent in these festivals a symbolism which runs deep into the psyche of the people, and which holds the village together as a community. Inter-generational disputes are set aside for the duration. Sadly, in many parts of France, and indeed in Europe, these traditions and values are not resistant to the more urgent batterings of the media society, but here in le Conflent profond they remain for the time being
As an immigrant from the barbarian lands of the North, I sometimes believe that I have gone to sleep and woken up in Paradise, a lost valley somewhere between England and Spain, where ancient customs survive in a land of eternal sunshine and pleasure. It isn’t all like that of course, but I can tell you this. After eighteen years in this valley I am, in my own heart, no longer an immigrant – I am an active, enthusiastic, paid-up Conflentais, as proud of the local catalan traditions as any born and bred local. I am captivated, passionate, addicted, absorbed, infatuated, engrossed, besotted, smitten by the people of this land and by the treasures I have found and have yet to find.
Of course as far as the locals are concerned, this is not so. They will wait at least another hundred years before passing judgment on my bona fide credentials to become an honorary catalan, and then another hundred to have them confirmed. And they will never understand why I am not living among my extended family in the ice-cold huts of terra Britannica. But the reality is that I am here, with my long-suffering wife, my bewildered dog and about eight hundred other would-be pseudo-catalans. The other immigrants will hate me for blowing the gaffe on their little secret, but in all truth I could not hold it back any longer. So that’s my tale. It has a beginning and a continuation, but as yet no visible ending. And long may it remain so.