I remember the legendary footballer Ian Rush once described a short, unsuccessful stint playing in the Italian league as ‘like living in a foreign country’.
On the face of it a quite absurd statement seeing as he was actually living in a foreign country, but I kind of know what he means now. I’ve worked all over the world as a stand-up comedian and sometimes the homogeneity is depressing.
I’ve stood at my hotel window in Singapore and stared at a high street containing HMV and TopMan, I’ve been to an M&S in Mumbai, an Irish pub in Shanghai and I daresay I could get a Starbuck’s Skinny Latte on the moon if I went, but rural France – although it’s now home – feels very much ‘abroad’.
LP Hartley wrote that ‘the past is a foreign country, they do things differently there’, which kind of makes rural France, certainly Berry (in the centre of the country) where I live “foreign country”.
There’s a feeling, wandering around small towns, that ‘this is how things used to be’, of course the stereotype of a Frenchman in a Breton shirt wearing a string of onions around his neck is nonsense but there is a rural uniform nonetheless; elderly women will generally wear a sort of old-fashioned floral housecoat, generally with a sleeveless cardigan buttoned-up over it and have shoulders that a nightclub bouncer would be proud of.
The men, and yes there is the odd beret, will be sporting a boiler suit and in a blue that’s rarely seen outside of industrial clothing, but giving them an oddly Maoist look. The effect of course is that these are working people, there’s no frivolity here, you can potter round your garden pruning roses all you like, we’ll be planting hardy winter vegetables and ripping the heads off rabbits.
Not all elderly people dress like that of course, this is France, the rest are in full Olympic cycling gear. It’s only when you drive around the remoter parts of France that you begin to appreciate just how big cycling is.
Sunday morning around here is chocka with groups of elderly men cycling at an almost impossibly slow rate, so slow that they might just topple over some of them. From a distance they look magnificent, like swarms of bees, as they’ve all rather optimistically gone for the lycra yellow jersey.
But on closer inspection they rarely look like they’re enjoying themselves, red-faced and drenched in sweat, you get the sense that they’re there because to not be so would represent defeat, a loss of face, be un-French.
They hog the roads like the Tour de France peloton itself, never moving over for something so vulgar as motorised transport which makes the Sunday morning dash to the boulangerie a fraught affair; there’s me trying to buy bread and being prevented from doing so by elderly cyclists. It’s France getting in the way of France, some might see that as a metaphor.
The fact that shops still shut at all around here pretty much goes against the world order; that they shut for lunch, or all day Sunday and Monday, seems positively antediluvian but is very much the essence of rural France. We moved here partly because of the relaxed pace of life, its tranquility. You don’t get that with a 24 hour supermarket on your doorstep.
Shopping in small towns provides a sensory rush, the sights, the smells and the fact that they are, for the most part, small independently owned shops is joyous but some small towns also pipe in their own music through strategically placed wall-speakers adding to the cinematic, dreamy feel.
Generally it’ll be accordion musette, as it should be, occasionally it gets ropier though and, hopefully by mistake, we were recently treated to one of the saltier rap offerings on market day which caused something of a stir and got the locals pretty worked up.
This is rural France though and therefore farming country, tempers seem at times almost permanently frayed, a pitchfork gathering never far away, a collective mentality and which is part of its charm for me. That and RED squirrels, red squirrels. Remember them? Red squirrels. You see? Rural France, where even the squirrels are communist.
Ian Moore is an author and stand up comedian. He's written two best-selling books about coping, or otherwise, with life in rural France. He also makes chutney. For more information CLICK HERE.
See Ian Moore on stage, below, talking about the perils of learning French.