There is something cheering and reassuring about old friends. In our local town of Callac – the Pearl of the Argoat – where the average age of the inhabitants hovers around the 65-mark, with many in their eighties, even nineties, everybody knows everybody else and, in most cases, has done so for more than half a century.
Louisa and I first appeared on the scene in 1999, but it was only in the summer of 2015, after selling up in New York, that we moved permanently to France. We knew that Callac was Codgerville-en-Terre. What we didn’t expect was that so many of the same codgers would still be around decades on. While there has been a gradual cull, so that you wonder why old Jean-Luc or Gwen haven’t shown up lately, the dramatis personae of our small-town drama has in fact altered very little over the years.
So it was nice the other day to be invited to dinner by our new German neighbour, Bertie, to celebrate the birthday of his Colombian wife, Miel. Also there were Bernard and Marie-Annick, old friends of Bertie’s, whom we had first met six weeks previously, as well as their friends, Pierre and Sophie, all from Redon some 50 miles to the south.
Redon is a working town on the approach to Nantes. They make car parts there, and cigarette lighters, and something called pectin, which apparently holds jams and jellies together. But there was no talk of commerce – or Macron, or Ukraine – during our mid-week soirée. Instead, everybody was in high spirits.
The evening began at the back of Bertie’s new house. The sun was shining and we sat round a table beneath one of those pull-out sun-blinds, like shop awnings, that seem to be all the rage these days. Was it there that we were served a delicious cold soup? I can’t remember. But I do recall that beer after beer disappeared in short order, after which we trooped inside for the main event.
Miel is an excellent cook and a diligent hostess. Her only problem, soon to be solved, is that, though fluent in German, she doesn’t yet speak French and thus had to communicate with her guests through broken English. It didn’t matter. It really didn’t. She was wonderful. For our pleasure, she served each of us with an entire half chicken, roasted to perfection, with various sauces and a mountain of chips. Beer and red and white wine flowed almost, you would have to say, continuously.
At 74, I was not the oldest there. Bernard and Pierre were both 76. They had known each other since childhood and now, in retirement, lived just streets away from each other. Bernard likes to sing. He performed a mean Charles Trenet, belting out a somehow still lyrical La Mer, and a creditable Lili Marlene, which up to that point I didn’t know existed in French.
Devant la caserne
Devant la grande porte
Il y avait une lanterne
Et elle y est encore.
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Là, on pourra se retrouver ;
Sous la lanterne, on pourra rester
Comme avant, Lili Marlène,
Comme avant, Lili Marlène.
Pierre isn’t a singer, but laughed throughout and raised his glass each time to the chorus line, Comme avant, Lili Marlène. The only surprise, I suppose, is that we didn’t get round to the Marseillaise, but there was a fine rendition of a 1970s hit by, I thought, “Johnny” that was in fact by someone else entirely, from Gascony. Weirdly, we were all required to join in on Dominique (nika-nika), an unlikely hit by the Belgian nun Soeur Sourire, dating back to 1963. Who knew that we were all fluent Europeans?
Back in Callac the next morning, there were lots of other old friends on view. At their usual table in the Café de la Place, were two blue-rinsed ladies in sequin jackets, their sticks resting together against the back wall (Bonjour, mesdames – Bonjour, M’sieur), and two old fellows who for some reason sit separately while maintaining an intermittent conversation that probably began when they were boys during the Occupation. Next to us , by the window, was a man I met through a mutual friend as long ago as the turn of the millennium. He looks like an ex-boxer, with the flattened nose and ragged ears of a pre-war pugilist. But it is his eyes that you notice most – constantly alert, looking for pals to josh with. When ladies come in, they bend down so that he can kiss them on both cheeks.
Over in the corner, nursing kirs with grenadine, sat a pair of octogenarians, both of them dressed in dungarees, who say very little to each other, probably because they don’t need to. They are like an old married couple who have said everything that needs to be said but would be deeply upset if the other was to be “taken”.
That’s the way it is in Callac, where youth is a memory, but still vivid in the minds of those who now spend their days in contemplation of nothing in particular. If you ever needed a definition of the French tense, le futur antérieur (the future in the past), this would be it.
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