‘Bonjour Messieurs/Dames’. ‘Au revoir Messieurs/Dames’. Or in most cases, just 'M’sieurs/Dames’ on entering a shop and the same on leaving. The French, especially provincial French, would rarely walk into a small shop like a boulangerie without politely greeting everyone there. Shop assistants in large shops expect you to greet them correctly and not just launch into ‘do you have any red frocks?’ If you make the mistake of forgetting your manners, they will restart the conversation properly by answering you with, ‘Bonjour Madame’. This not only forces you back into the place you belong but teaches you how to be Francais.
However, the French can be very poetic and pepper their conversations with little dollops of incidental tenderness when you are least expecting it. At a picnic recently, a man said the flowers should hide in shame, so lovely were the women there. Men kiss each other on both cheeks (they kiss 3 times in Uzès which is quite time consuming, but you can’t get out of it) and ask you to dance in the rain. I bought ribbon from a woman who described the colour as crushed raspberries — late season. I bought fabric from another woman who explained to her assistant how to cut plain material straight — ‘you can sense the warp. It’s like crossing the mountains from Spain . . . you just follow your feelings.’ These things I find very poetic.
I’m always amazed at foreigners and visitors who are nasty and lacking in graciousness in France. How do they get people to talk to them? How do they get into people’s homes? Who would feed the person who is a hand-biter? And how come they still don’t speak French after living here for years? There’s no such thing as a wonderful, beautiful or moving place really, not even Uzès which is ridiculously good looking. There is only your reaction and relationship to a place that makes it worthwhile or not. When I first saw the Languedoc again I thought, what is this barren, dry, colourless place? But then it grows on you like beautiful hair or a reluctant smile. Before I built my house in Uzès I cooked in kitchens that were unmitigated tips, on castle moats, on barges, in restaurants, in farmhouses with chickens and mud underfoot and in kitchens so spotless and well equipped I wondered if the owners might have sexual problems. Now that I have my very own kitchen, we dump all the fresh ingredients on the counter, talk about the meaning of life, get the wine open on the dot of 12 and say bonjour, au revoir and merci.