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Cigarettes and cats

One rainy Friday evening in February I was drawn to English voices at a bar. Three young men, hatted and wrapped up, were sitting outside drinking pastis and smoking. Their breath condensed as they spoke. For the second time since moving here alone 3 months previously, 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. My few friends in the area were away on a post-season holiday and sitting on my own night after night in a friend's holiday house where I couldn't fathom the heating system was depressing. The soirée would 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 the rain and unlit streets back the to car and drove home. Waiting for me were three half-feral ginger cats, a 16 euro 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 we were cheery. At the only free table at the bar the chairs were wet so I asked one of the men if they, who were seated under a canopy, had a couple of spare dry ones. These were 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, I'd discovered that the first, Richard, was in his thirties and worked in the building trade. Not only that but by 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, 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 were incredulous. But I had fallen in love with Provence 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?

My ears pricked up hearing about work possibilities, but the arrival of my daughter had the effect of silencing the men for several moments.

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, 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!'

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