Cigarettes and cats


Walking through the village one rainy Friday evening in February I was drawn to English voices at the bar. Three young men, hatted and well wrapped up, were sitting outside drinking pastis and smoking. They occupied one of four tables and their breath condensed as they spoke. For the second time since I moved here alone, I wanted, not to join in exactly - but to sit near and exchange a word or two with strangers. The first time had not been a success. A few days following my arrival in November, I saw a poster advertising a musical soirée the following week and decided to go. The friends I had in the area were away on a post-season holiday and sitting on my own night after night in a friend's holiday house whose heating system I was yet to fathom was depressing. The soirée would, I hoped, be warm if nothing else. However when I arrived, the venue - a chateau - was so vast and the village so dark, I couldn't find a way in. I tried three times on foot and twice in the car. I asked directions but didn't have sufficient language to follow the courteous replies. Defeated and miserable, with church bells ringing admonishment, I walked through rain and unlit streets back the to car and drove home. Waiting for me were three half-feral ginger cats, a twelve euro 5 litre bag-in-box rosé and a packet of Karelia cigarettes.

Things were different now. The heating was working and the rooms were warm. My middle daughter was visiting and I was cheery. I chose a table at the bar and, noticing the chairs were wet, asked one of the men if they, who were seated under a canopy, had a spare dry one. A dry chair was passed over and after ordering a couple of drinks, I sat down, lit a cigarette and waited for my daughter. The young men were in an end-of-the-week celebratory mood, and chatty. By the time she arrived ten minutes later, I'd discovered that the first, Richard, was in his thirties and worked in the local wine industry. Not only that but by astonishing coincidence he'd gone to the same school in England as, and been best pals with, the son of a close friend of mine. He proudly told me about the time he and my friend's son, then aged seventeen, escaped with scratches after they wrote off a car driving it into a tree. The young Mancunian sitting across from Richard was an electrician who also lived and worked here. The third man was local, a stonemason, who spoke in perfect English about his travels to Africa, Greece and Turkey. 'If you want work here, there are two things, rocks and vineyards, the rest is seasonal,' he told me unprompted. I've given myself a two year deadline to write, learn French (I had virtually none), and scratch a living. People are incredulous. But I fell in love with Provence nine years ago and having lived, not through choice, for most of my 51 years, in a large post-industrial town in the West of Scotland, I needed a change. I was worn out. The Var, why not?

I was immediately interested in hearing about work possibilities, but the arrival of my daughter had the effect of silencing the men for several moments as I knew it would.

They got over it and soon the warmth of the little pavement party overcame my hopeless situation and the chill damp air. For an hour we drank and smoked and talked about the difficulties of learning a language and finding work. The electrician told me his mother could help find me summer cleaning, Richard offered advice on February's vine work, pruning, and the Frenchman added that if I turned up at this bar on any Monday morning at 6.30am, I'd find a gang of people seeking work and employers looking for casual labour. If I wanted to earn money all I had to do was turn up in rough clothes and prove I was capable of hard work. Say what you like about the French and the ex-pat community; I've found nothing but kindness, care and a non-prying friendliness from almost everyone I've met. Robert in the deli, Mathilde, whose goats appear on the kitchen windowsill of a morning and lovely Joy, the hippy toff in faux crocodile skin boots, batman leggings and sparkly top, who invited me, with others, for supper and cooked on the open fire in her living room.

When it was time for us to leave, the Mancunian gazed at my daughter and let his face fall with disappointment. We left with cheerful bonsoirs and promises to rendezvous again. Richard shouted after me, 'Lundi, á six heures et demi!' I was only half joking when I answered, 'Oui, bien sur!'

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