Avec mes sabots
Last night was la Fete de la Musique in France. In every town, in every village, there was singing and dancing and playing in the squares and in the churches. I sat in the church and listened to the familiar sound of a French choir dominated by aged female voices. Three men did their best. But it was still a delight to see. And then in the grande place I watched a groupe folklorique dance in their quaint wooden clogs. And then another choir singing familar traditional French songs. This part of the festival came to an abrupt end with the arrival of a heavy rock group, three guitars and drums. I watched as a portly gentleman with walking stick and straw hat gesticulated with the sound man. "Trop fort!" he was saying. I think the sound man pretended to twist a nob in the manner of sound men everywhere, amateur and professional, when asked to turn the music down.
Later, in a park beside the river, the evening concluded with la Feu de Saint-Jean, a sort of French equivalent of Guy Fawkes night. A group of villagers, carrying torches, came up the river and set alight a huge bonfire from which we could feel the heat a hundred yards away.
In the morning we, Monique, a French pilgrim, and I, had breakfast in the presbytery with the pastor. He is a cat person. Three cats roamed around the old house and climbed all over him.
Now there are cats and cats. There are stuck-up, snotty nosed little cats that wouldn't pass the time of day with you and there big congenial cats that climb all over you and purr contentedly when you stroke them. The pastor's cats were of the latter variety.
He was very proud of his bell, which was called Norman. It had been presented to him by his parishioners.
As I walked along the road towards Clermont I found myself singing the familiar traditional French song that I had heard last night at la Fete de la Musique. I remembered learning it sixty years ago in Miss Secombe's French class. I was filled was a deep sense of regret. To have dropped French and taken up Geology was the first big mistake of my life, and one that I have regretted ever since.
Perhaps the most common question we children were asked by adults was "What are you going to be when you grow up?" I didn't know. Other kids did. This worried me as I grew older. What was I going to do? I think that is why, when suddenly Geology was offered in my second last year at school, I seized upon it as a profession I could follow. What a mistake! I graduated from school with three sciences and two Maths, caught up, probably, in the Sputnik-motivated science wave. But I soon realized at university, that, to use an Australian expression of the time, I was useless in Maths and Science. I was a no-hoper! Strangely, just before we graduated, they had given us an aptitude test, and my top interests were literature and music.
I stopped for coffee at Clermont. It was a very pleasant place, run by the proprietor and his two dogs. Now the French have a rather severe attitude to their dogs, they expect them to know their place, but not this man. He loved his dogs and they loved him. They were long-haired shepherd-collie-type mutts, and they lolled around in the bar because they owned it. One was a gourmand, explained the barman, as the dog sniffed the bread in my pack. He ate with the clients, forever seeking new delicacies.
I left the road and followed a track up a hill. I passed through an electric fence, carefully detatching the hook with the plastic handle and then fastening it again behind me. Forgetting that electric fences, like commas, often come in pairs, I came within inches of giving myself a nasty shock where I didn't want one. I continued on along a farm track which wound its way up and around the hills.
I sang Waltzing Matilda to a bunch of cows who nodded their heads in approval, swung their tales in time, and joined in the chorus, indicating their pleasure by coming towards me as if to say, "Sing it again." They knew a good tenor voice when they heard one. But I couldn't stay.
What a magnificent song is Waltzing Matilda! Just after I left in the sixties (Stop me if I've told you this story before), Australia held a referendum to decide which song would replace God Save the Queen as the national anthem. The choice was between Song of Australia, an insipid piece, something about a sky gleaming with a thousand eyes, or was it a thousand dyes, I never knew; Waltzing Matilda; and Advance Australia Fair. The first was never in the running, and Australians, who take themselves too seriously at times, thought that Waltzing Matilda was a bit too frivolous, and chose Advance Australia Fair, a very generic anthem with unsingable words, which nobody knows anyway. They fake it, until they get to the bit they know.
Dah, dah, dah-dah, dah, dah, dah-da, dah, dah, dah, dah, dah, dah,
Dah, dah, dah-dah, dah, dah, dah-da, Advance, Australia Fair.
Dah, dah, dah, dah, dah, dah, dah, dah, Advance Australia Fair.
It was an unfortunate choice. It is certainly not one of the world's great anthems, like the Welsh, for example, which brings tears to the eyes of every Welshman, and many like me who aren't Welsh. Besides, Waltzing Matilda is as well known to the rest of the world as the Canadian maple leaf, but who recognizes Advance Australia Fair, which might be the anthem of any of half a dozen countries?
Later I passed some sheep and you can guess what I sang to them. But they turned their heads.
I stopped for lunch in the little village of Lescure, where few people live today. On the monument aux morts there were 47 names. One family had lost three sons; many others had lost two. I have seen this on so many war memorials across France. We in the Commonwealth are well aware of the lives lost by our countrymen in the First World War, but we forget that as many were lost by the French.
Then it was ten kilometres to go, and flat or slightly downhill all the way to Saint-Lizier. I stopped to admire a ruined church in the middle of nowhere.
A cyclist stopped and told me she had recently walked the Chemin du Puy. We chatted for a while and she said it had been a pleasure talking to me. I think she meant it. And I felt the same way. She warned me to hurry to beat an oncoming storm. And then I spoke with a couple who had marked the trail and wanted to know whether I had found it satisfactory. I had. They said there wouldn't be a storm.
Then I chatted with a fellow who was carefully picking nettles. For soup, he said. I told him to leave enough for other people. I felt the first drops of rain as I arrived at Saint-Luzier.
I missed out on my beer. Here, there are two cathedrals, but little commerce. Nothing was open. The lady in the Office de Tourisme was extremely helpful and gave us good advice about the gites to come. We are staying in the municipal gite, Monique and I.