French customs, English Food and Frelons
Within a few weeks we were introduced to the French custom of afternoon coffee and cakes offered by and to all the neighbours in our hamlet and to start with we amused everyone by taking our huge Collins French/English dictionary with us - we didn't want to be lacking for words that were not in our heads in the first place! We realised that we'd have to return all of these social visits, of course, and it was much easier in the spring and summer months as we could all sit out in the garden with distractions happening around us rather than just sitting looking intently at everyone - and Terry and I could pass crafty eye signals to each other without being noticed!
We realised that our neighbours used these social sessions for swapping gossip about everyone else they knew, so we were often able to just sit back and soak up whatever we could whilst they rattled on about other poor unfortunates. We heard how one young man's parents had received an enormous telephone bill and it was subsequently discovered that he had been ringing porno lines! He was also seen climbing telegraph poles but we couldn't quite grasp the reason for this. The enjoyment our neighbours got out of gossip - oh to be fluent and understand the reasons for those horrified "Oh la la las !!" .
A little later on and with a bit more confidence about the French language under our belts, we joined in a discussion about English food. One person stated that the English couldn't cook and all English food was really bland - wasn't it ? - turning to us for some confirmation or reaction. The others sat there nodding their agreement and although only two of them had actually set foot in England and eaten English food - everyone just knew that it was awful!
The ace up my sleeve was the fact that our good neighbour and car club president, Monsieur C, was left to his own devices for a few days every so often when his wife went off to visit her mother. During those periods, he would often drop in on us at breakfast time (coffee and toast ?? - "ah, if you insist !" and "Ah, what good coffee !!") and he came round to eat dinner with us fairly frequently (he was invited!) whilst Madame was away as, being a typical French country-man, he admitted that he would not know how to start to cook anything for himself . His frequent declaration was that the correct place for women was either in the kitchen or the bedroom, albeit he would give me a sly look when he said this, expecting some reaction ! ..
He always praised our dinners, telling us that he telephoned his wife to tell her what he had eaten and indicating that it was incredible as he hadn't realised that the English could cook tasty food! He even told members of the car club that when his wife was away he enjoyed really good food cooked by his English neighbours - so I had proof !!
When I repeated this tale at that particular social session, he confessed that it was correct and said that it was one of those many beliefs that the French and the English had developed about each other's cultures. He said that his previous experience of English food was when he was in London for a few days in the "sixties" and had eaten at "touristy" places and the food served had simply confirmed every French persons' knowledge of English cooking ... I have had my own fair share of cooking disasters as everyone does, but I had to stick up for what I knew to be true and not let them carry on believing that the English always ate bland rubbish! I came out with all of this in French with no dictionary used. It seems that when I am provoked, the French just spouts out of my mouth and amazes me later!
Through our first summer months of living in France we had a steady stream of family and friends visiting - all curious to see where we lived and what exactly we got up to. In those early days we hadn't got the garden properly sorted out - it was just a sort of tamed wilderness with bumpy grass. However, we had discovered, much to our delight, that underneath the waist-high nettles and brambles was a low stone wall running all around the upper half of the garden. We also found that we had several different fruit trees and numerous hazel-nut trees. Our neighbours had asked us if we liked gardening and I had said yes, which please them immensely as they'd clearly become fed up with the nettles and other weeds spreading into their garden from ours - so we had quite a responsibility to get it sorted out fairly soon, to stay in their good books.
Frelons (large hornets, sounding similar to army helicopters) were next on our learning curve. Monsieur C had warned us that if someone was stung, especially around the neck area, it could be fatal. My husband dismisses all such statements with a wave of his hands, so when he was doing some gardening and called to me that he'd been stung twice by a frelon (he'd then swatted and killed it so I quickly scraped it into a jar) I was horrified and told him to stay very still and calm and I rushed off down the garden holding the frelon jar up high to show to Monsieur C. He was horrified too and told his wife to grab what turned out to be white vinegar with 8% alcohol and they both came rushing over to our house. Terry stood there laughing (his two stings were fairly pronounced by this time but were under his rib cage to the side rather than near his neck - but still, I thought of his heart. He allowed himself to be administered to by Madame (who adores him and loves to faun over him whenever she has the opportunity) then he strutted off and continued with his work leaving our French neighbours most impressed with his manly distain of possible death.
Anyway, the frelons didn't win a body this time. My sturdy and scornful husband waved his fist at them and his stings - and that, luckily, was that! Or so I thought!!
A few days later we realised that there was a frelons' nest in the side wall of the house next door and that was where the frelons were coming from. This neighbour refused to call the pompiers to get rid of it as they charge for this service, so my own brave Knight and Monsieur C decided to fight this fight themselves. With a gas burner waving about in his hand, Terry climbed up the ladder urged on by Monsieur C who stood staunchly at the bottom, holding on tightly. The neighbour who owned the property stood discreetly back from this performance, but watching closely. Terry directed the flames into the nest through a hole in the wall, (good job our stone walls are a couple of feet thick!) then plugged it with a previously prepared wooden plug. The frelons that had been away from home started appearing and buzzing around trying to get into their sealed nest so Terry waved the gas burner around at them and laughingly declared that that would be the end of it. It was, too - after a few hours they seemed to have given up on their scorched comrades inside the wall, and that was the end of this particular drama ......