I nearly got engaged to a French farmer, about 40 years my senior, while on holiday one year. Not on purpose, I hasten to add, but perhaps it wouldn’t have happened if I had paid more attention in French class.
The memory was vividly brought back for me recently, when some friends posted photos of their summer holiday in rural France. Those ancient villages with their quaint buildings gently crumbling at the corners, half glazed doors and metal grilles have a style of their own. I can smell the lavender, black coffee and bread and I fondly remember the Calvados.
Living in southern England means popping over to Europe is no big deal, so I have had several lovely holidays in France over the years. This particular time was my last visit to France and I must have been in my mid-twenties. I was invited to stay with a professor and his wife, who were at university with my brother. Sean was a big hearty man who made friends easily, could be the life and soul of the party and had a fabulous sense of humour. He was the care giver for his wife Anne; a brave, strong willed lady who was severely disabled by MS.
Sean and Anne had a second home in a teeny village called Ivergny, in northern France. The heart of that home was a large farmhouse table in the old tiled kitchen. We ate, chatted, laughed and gambled at that table. Sean and I drank local wines while Anne drank cocktails from a sippy cup – her hand shook too much to manage an ordinary glass. Occasionally we would have tiny glasses of Calvados – this was locally brewed brandy that had the kick of several dinosaurs and could raise your voice by an octave or two if you drank it too fast.
Sean had a new toy – a video camera – and he had spent many hours recording everyday life. He had discovered that he got some great films if he set up the camera, focused on the kitchen table, and just left it running for the night. I got to view some fabulous films of my brother in a rather undignified state, giggling like a school girl. Sean made no secret of his filming and we all loved the results, even if we were the subject. Somehow, after a little Calvados, we forgot about that camera.
During the hot, lazy afternoons, neighbours would sometimes pop in to say hello and share some wine. Claude, a local farmer, was a frequent visitor. Unlike most of the locals, Claude didn’t speak any English and Sean had to be our interpreter. One day Claude came round as usual, but this time he seemed a little nervous and he was rather smartly dressed (for a rural, semi-retired farmer). Mainly through sign language Claude asked me to sit in the dining room with him. Sean was there fiddling with his camera, but he chatted with us as he set the camera on a shelf and checked the angles of vision and then left the room …
Claude had brought wine and he carefully opened the bottle and poured wine for us, smiling at me all the time. He started the conversation with basic French that I could comprehend …
“Comment allez-vous, aujourd’hui?” Claude slowly enunciated.
“Très bien merci, et toi?” I replied. His face lit up and I realized my error. I had used the familiar ‘tu’ form instead of the more formal ‘vous’. For an old-fashioned man, this was a bit of a come on.
Flustered, I shut up. Encouraged, Claude launched into a speech. I couldn’t follow much of it. He seemed to be telling me about his farm. I recognized numbers and animals. This seemed harmless and I smiled encouragement. Claude’s face lit up and his speech became faster and more animated. I poured us both some more wine.
I was able to study this man while he talked. He sat on the edge of his chair, legs wide apart, feet firmly planted on the floor. His stomach strained within the confines of an old black waistcoat and it rode up enough to show a faded blue shirt underneath. His crotch was fat enough to become genderless. He leaned towards me; white hair greased back, honest friendly face earnest, as he struggled to express himself. He gesticulated wildly like any self-respecting Frenchman will after a drink or two, and the sound of his garrulous French was like poetry. He was a lovely man and reminded me of one of my uncles.
He paused, I refocused, he dramatically ripped open his shirt, I squealed. A button rolled across the floor. I was frozen to the chair, wondering what Claude was going to do. Surely he wasn’t going to try and jump me in the dining room? He thumped his chest and beckoned me closer. Like a hypnotized rabbit I slowly leaned forward. Claude wanted to show me his scar. Ah! This was familiar territory; men like to show off their scars, but I was a little surprised by his dramatics. I could hear Sean pottering about in the kitchen, and dearly wished he would come in and save me. He didn’t.
Claude stood up, I sat back, Claude got out his wallet, I leaned forward and poured more wine. Claude took out a wad of notes and carefully licked his thumb and forefinger. “HOLY POO!!” is probably the safest translation of my thoughts at that moment. Claude started to count his money out in front of me. There was rather a lot, I was rather flattered but firmly crossed my legs and glared at him. Claude paused and brought out a bank statement. He jabbed his forefinger the total on the statement and passed it to me, while talking up a storm.
I was now thoroughly confused and my mind was seething with unseemly thoughts about the intentions of this sweet man. He was obviously trying to impart some information to me, and my smutty city imagination was jumping to some terrible conclusions. I was trying to be polite, nodding and shaking my head at what seemed to be the right time.
FINALLY Sean came back into the room, grinning broadly. He slapped Claude on the back and they had some man to man type of chat, and then Claude left.
Sean roared with laughter, he laughed ‘til he cried and couldn’t speak for several minutes. When he finally regained his composure, Sean explained that Claude had proposed to me and would return the next day for my answer. Sean had been shamelessly listening (as well as filming it) as Claude has told him his intentions previously.
This was a bit of a shock to say the least. My first proposal and I hadn’t understood it.
Sean explained that Claude had told me about his main asset, the farm. Then he had explained about his heart surgery (a little dramatically, but he is French). He finished by telling me about his savings and how he would give me a generous allowance if I became his wife.
I could have happily throttled Sean for letting this good man propose to me. I made Sean explain to Claude, with sincerity and heartfelt remorse, why I could not marry him. I stood in the background, wringing my hands with compassion as Sean broke the news to him. To my delight Claude rallied nicely and spent the rest of my holiday leching over me like any reasonable man. I flirted back nicely, and honour and dignity were restored.