In the Fashoda Incident in 1898, the French and British had a stand-off on the White Nile in the Sudan. The British, surviving on grim army rations, were invited to a dinner of fresh vegetables by the French. They had carried the seeds for 14 months across Africa.
That is why I love the French – for what they consider important: like fresh veg and baguettes, good coffee and good manners, books, cartoons and lampoons, sharp femininity, their own way of doing things. They stick like limpets to their Frenchness. They are French and proud of it.
My early French memories, from the ‘50s, are of empty roads, wine cooling in streams while we picnicked on bread and cheese and tomatoes. A café and bar in every village, farmers, cows, Citroën 2CVs bouncing along with hay-bales, old men in berets, and ineffable charm at every encounter. Ridiculous, of course, to hark back to those days, but they have left their mark on me and early marks survive.
I was introduced early to the châteaux and castles, to the beautiful buildings and villages scattered throughout the country. I thought that Azay Le Rideau was an architectural paradise, a château-jewel in its own lake. I spoke French early, at the urging of a mother who had learned it as a girl, so my connections were alive and nourishing. I felt French, wanted more of it all. Years later I would read JeanGiono and Moliere, take travellers around the country in coaches and then myown mini-bus. I fell in love with French women, idling in Montmartre and underthe bridges of Paris. I took a girlfriend to Les Folies Bergeres – oh how grown-up that was. Paris made me, makes me, think about beauty, about aesthetics, about love.
I have been to Martinique, too, and heard French patois in other islands. I have enjoyed croissants in Pondicherry, and French-style coffee in Kerala, relieved to retreat into nostalgia. France has captured me, and I can see why. I have been touched by Frenchness in so many ways, starting affectionately at a young age. I even taught the language for 5 years, but confess to my love stumbling at the third year of the imperfect subjunctive. However I can still produce it, to startle older French people and mystify young ones. Luckily, we have many ‘older’ owners of our Special Places, and my enjoyment of them is deep. They, too, enjoy their subjunctives.