Provence through the Pastis fumes

New Year's Eve, and some very merry hunters doing the rounds today, taking potshots at everything that moved above snail size. Alcohol intake meant that creatures able to accelerate to much above a snail pace mostly got away. Kids and I survived daylight hours and the risky 100 metre dash from home to garage intact. At dusk and in ample time for very early evening aperitifs, climbing through terraces of olive groves and green oak glades, we drove along the mile long track that leads to a neighbour's home, avoiding public roads.

A cacophony of voices greeted us as we entered; the merriment had long since begun. The level in the Pastis bottle had already dropped considerably. I decided to help it along -if you can't beat'em, join'em. The decibel level of what passes as polite and friendly social interaction in Provence increased exponentially. Those gentle, measured Thai tones of just eleven days ago seemed a million miles away. Hordes of children milled around, sensibly keeping a discrete distance from the adults. Provencal kids know to speak only when spoken to - politically correct methods of discipline have yet to filter through to the backwaters of the northern Vaucluse in the south of France. I slurped my 'perroquet' - Pastis, mint cordial, water and ice - and tried to work out how seven people were each managing to hold several reasonably coherent conversations, at the tops of their voices, simultaneously.

Above the din and through the double glazing, the faint sound of a gunshot. I was the only one not talking nineteen to the dozen at the time; no one else appeared to notice it. Looked for an opening to ask who might be firing a gun illegally after dark, but the extreme right-wing politics of the local butcher was the subject of a heated exchange (all entirely amicable of course, although a non French-speaking visitor unfamiliar with Provencal ways would be forgiven for thinking that the entire gathering was seconds away from degenerating into a free-for-all punch-up). No opportunity presented itself, and I gradually slipped back into an aniseed alcohol induced reverie. The most strident of nearby conversations switched to the topic of Isabelle's car, left in Malauc่ene's public car park the night before. In her nearby house Isabelle had been awoken by what she thought was the sound of late evening rehearsals for the New Year firework celebrations. In the morning she discovered four burnt out vehicles (including hers) littering the car park... someone had set fire to one car (allegedly to get the insurance), and when the brakes burnt through, it rolled down a slight incline into the others, setting them alight. The 'fireworks' were the sounds of tyres exploding...

On the topic of motor vehicles, the dang gypsies had apparently broken into some cars again... no proof of course, but round here the
gitans get the blame for pretty much anything.

The phone shrieked, ring tone set to maximum volume otherwise during anything in excess of a family gathering of three people it would be completely inaudible. Jean, another neighbour and apparent source of the gunshot wanted to know if our hosts Alix and Laurent had seen anyone prowling around. The dreaded phantom truffle thieves were allegedly about yet again. Minutes later in he burst, out of breath, shotgun swinging carelessly in a gesticulating hand. Had he seen them, Laurent enquired? No, but "
quand mes chiens parlent..." (when my dogs talk)... Jean left the sentence hanging in the air, a knowing look on his face.

A neighbour living on the far side of the valley behind Alix's and Laurent's place, I had never come across Jean before. Features ravaged by years of excessive alcohol consumption, he could have been anywhere between 40 and 60. Impossible to tell. Fortified by a freshly poured large Pastis, he launched into his tale. The gang of phantom truffle thieves is highly organised, rarely seen, but invariably leaves telltale signs behind to taunt the landowner. "Thirty holes last week!" Jean exclaimed in horror, waving his weapon for extra effect. I ducked slightly. Well into his Pastis he decided to check if there was a forgotten cartridge in the chamber of the weapon he'd been brandishing. There wasn't. I relaxed again, realising that I'd been holding my breath for the past ten minutes. I needed a top-up.

Truffle expert I may not be, but no self-respecting truffle hunter and his dog regularly working his own fields and woods would risk leaving that many of the priceless subterranean mushrooms to be discovered by all and sundry. The tale was gradually embellished, as he recounted previous encounters, including a FBI style sting which nabbed a whole gang of the miscreants. Dubbed Hollywood films are very popular in France. A couple of the moves sounded very familiar to a scene from Rambo.

Two macho young types collected their weapons from beside the door to assist Jean in the night time hunt. Woe betide anyone innocently taking their dog for a stroll along a public path in the neighbourhood this evening. I hesitantly asked Laurent about the legal consequences should they by some miracle, despite being totally pissed, actually manage to hit something they were aiming at in the dark. He assured me that they would only
tirer dans l'air. I wondered if given their state of drunkenness they would actually have a clue which direction the sky was in, but left the thought unsaid. Still, given the time it had taken him to down a couple of apéros and tell his story, the alleged culprits would be long gone. And most locals would be doing the same as us, I thought. The dogs would have to take their chances on their own with Rambo Jean on the prowl, if they needed a pee.

Les Ingleesh
was the latest subject of conversation. With barely a glance in my direction the eight people present (given that three had just staggered out they had either multiplied unnoticed, or I was beginning to see double) broke into spontaneous hilarity. I had missed the beginning, as I was dreaming up a list of predictions for 2009... the £ falling to 0.80 euros, the euro plummeting in value against the Thai currency to 25 baht, house prices continuing to collapse through next year well into 2010, oil rising to 150$ a barrel, recession turning into depression, civil war erupting in Thailand, worldwide depression inevitably leading to international conflict... alcohol has that effect on me as I rarely drink anything more than a couple of small beers a week. I snapped out of it. Suppose it's gratifying in a way that the local Frogs have adopted me as one of their own, especially as under the influence of a few glasses of Pastis I can manage accent-less French. Or so it sounds to me anyway. After a few glasses of Pastis.

It seemed that the Baron family over the hill had sold a nice little property to an English couple just before the economic problems began to bite, keeping one slender and seemingly useless piece of land for themselves that went right up to the walls of the house. Innocently the Brits swallowed the nonsensical reason provided by the Barons hook line and sinker. Papers signed, furniture installed and family in possession, everything was hunky dory. For a couple of weeks. Then in moved the workers, radios blasting, to begin pruning back the vines. At the crack of dawn. Day, after day, after day... The Brits cracked, a deal was done, at ten times the going rate per square metre of agricultural land. Caveat emptor...

Eventually time to say our farewells for the last time in 2008, and drive back home. Lights blazing, NRJ radio (pronounced en-air-JEE) blasting courtesy of the kids, I trusted Jean and his commandos wouldn't mistake us for the truffle-snufflers' getaway car, as we bumped back down the stony track.

We made it... and so to all friends new and old, a very
Happy New Year!

** Pastis,
n. A French aniseed flavoured liqueur, usually drunk as an aperitif. From Old Provencal pastitz (paste, pasty) from vulgar Latin pasticium

click on pic to see full size photoSo close to a white Christmas in Provence this year, a very rare occurrence. Snow at home, L'Eau Salee, 330 metres - Malaucene Vaucluse...

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Martyn said...

Those are bad day dreams you're having, for christ sake don't fall asleep. Sounds a very different night to the UK "drunk as a skunk wake up with a hangover" boring night out.Happy New Year to you and all your family. My countdown has started.

Healthy Solutions said...

Wishing you and your family health, wealth, and happiness in 2009!