A dinner invitation
We had been invited to dinner by an English-speaking French friend who lived near us, or at least we thought she lived near us, in an old mas up the mountainside going towards Fontfrede. We’d seen the sign at the bottom of a track leading off from the road and so, it being a pleasant summer evening, we decided to walk. We put a bottle of wine in a rucksack and set off. We hadn’t reckoned on mountain weather. As we reached the sign, dark clouds slid silently over the ridge and spatters of rain started to fall.
Turning off the road we were puzzled not to see a house but we followed the track as it started to wind uphill. By now it was teeming down and we were soaked to the skin. We walked and we walked, steadily uphill along the increasingly rocky track under dripping oaks. The track continued to climb and all we could see through the cloud was impenetrable forest. There was nothing for it but to keep going.
Two hours later the light was failing and we were just about to turn back when we glimpsed a light twinkling in the gloom, about half a mile ahead. As we drew closer an imposing house became visible, surrounded on each side by thickly forested slopes; it was literally in the middle of nowhere. As we squelched through an ornate gateway and across a courtyard littered with statues and Grecian columns we could see light spilling from an open oak door and a cluster of people looking anxiously out.
“Thank goodness for that!” a lanky man said in an Italian accent. “Now at least we can have a drink, I’m parched!”
We didn’t know that it’s the custom in France to hold off from the first drink until all the guests have arrived, and our unfortunate fellow guests, an Italian man and an elegant, well spoken woman, had been waiting two hours for us to turn up. Perhaps it isn’t the tradition at all, and they just wanted to make us feel guilty. We apologised and looked around in amazement. The kitchen was a size of a castle and beyond that, a lounge with a huge marble fireplace looked like something out of the pages of Home & Garden. A few white sofas were clustered around the centre of the room; there was a grand piano in one corner, and in the other was a large table, laid with an immaculate white table cloth, sparkling glasses and solid silver cutlery. A beautiful chandelier cast a flickering light over tiny vases, each containing a white rose.
It turned out that our friend had once been a chef, and so the meal got off to a good start with anchovies that she had purchased fresh at Port Vendres and marinated herself to a Spanish boquerones recipe. The wine was from a local domain and was delicious so to warm ourselves up we poured a large glass each.
During the course of dinner, hubby and I sat in befuddled silence as the voluble Italian man became animated. With much arm waving he informed us all that he would be returning to Italy to vote for Berlusconi and that us Brits simply didn’t get it. “You can do nothing in Italy if you are not corrupt,” he said. The wine continued to flow and then hubby, probably while trying to pour himself another, managed to drop his glass and spill a good amount all over the white tablecloth.
“Don’t worry,” our friend said while trying to mop up the excess. The subject of politics exhausted, the Italian man told us that he was a devout Roman Catholic and proceeded to tell us of the various practices of which he disapproved. These were, in order of importance: homosexuality, sex before marriage and oral sex.
The elegant, well spoken woman put down her fork and glared at the Italian man from under hooded eyebrows. “Well, I rather like oral sex,” she said. Italian Man ignored her, he was on a roll. It seemed he took exception to the homeless men that are sometimes seen sitting on the pavement in Ceret. “Damned zombies! I trip over them every time I leave my flat,” he said. And to prove his point he stood up and started to stalk on long locust legs around the room, lifting his bony knees in pretend distaste. “I don’t like being too close to people,” he added as he took his place again at the table. “When I go to the cinema in Italy I buy up all the seats in my row, the row behind and the row in front. There’s nothing worse than listening to people eating sweets while you’re trying to watch a film.”
By now it was late, the rain had stopped and it was time to step back out into the darkness of the forest. It was wild boar-has-babies season and despite the wine I was quite worried. After all, we were in total darkness in the middle of a huge forest half way up the Pyrenees, so to hubby’s disgust, I insisted on singing tunelessly at the top of my voice. We were both pleased to reach the road: I was relieved to have survived the forest without being attacked by big hairy boar, and he was relieved that the hopelessly flat christmas carols had come to an end. Although the rain also had stopped, thunder was rolling between the mountains that encircled us, and every few minutes sheets of lightning illuminated the Roussillon plain below. As we reached a bend in the road we were confronted by a huge mud slide.
My pumps had been an impulse buy and to date are the most expensive footwear I’ve ever purchased. It was their first outing and thus I was reluctant to wade through the mountain of mud. The only other alternative was to balance delicately on the low wall that is supposed to prevent drunk locals from disappearing over the side and pitching into the river below. Having drunk the best part of a few bottles of wine and it being pitch dark other than occasional flashes of lightning, this was no easy feat. The pumps went in the washing machine but have never been quite the same again.
The following day, nursing sore heads and over a cup of strong coffee Jo told us of her plan to despatch Arthur to a clinic in Germany for a stem cell implant that she hoped would help his condition. “I’m expecting a new man to come back,” she told us. “Perhaps then he will be able to bring the wood in for the fire.” In the meantime, the hospital in Toulouse had fitted him with a pump attached to his waistband which he was allowed to activate up to three times a day. Arthur returned from his five day stay at Toulouse and appeared at our house with an armful of ice-creams, his favourite food.
Our son and his friend had set off from Cumbria several months earlier in an attempt to cycle all the way to Mongolia. They emailed us to say they were in Bulgaria and had been waking up each day to find their tent totally submerged in snow. On the spur of the moment we decided to fly out for a holiday to Istanbul, hopefully meeting up with them there. I emailed to let them know of our plans and offered to bring a snow shovel. The reply came back:
don’t bother with the snow shovel, but please bring:
2 cans of guinness
Lush travel soap
Luxury gravy granules
The daughter volunteered to visit the Lush shop (any excuse) but now the search was on for luxury gravy granules and Grandma in Bexhill was duly dispatched to Marks and Spencer.