FA AWAY PLACES WITH STRANGE SOUNDING NAMES

My wife and I have just returned from a holiday in the Aude, a region of south west France in the foothills of the Pyrenees. It was there, last Thursday night, that we went to a dance in the tiny village of Fa. It’s a custom of ours to search out these small events in market halls and village squares because they are full of charm and innocent fun. My last novel, The English Lady Murderers’ Society, has such occasions for much of its focus.

Fa is only a short distance from Esperaza, a town with no distinction except a Dinosaur Museum and a Sunday Market. We buy bits and pieces there and afterwards stroll by the river. The English are very evident. Some are holidaymakers like us (the giveways being strange shorts and panama hats, or blouses and dresses that look as if bought from a catalogue – though not me and the missus of course, with our understated air of mystery and glamour, hem hem). However there are also many who have settled in the area: English people who have gone native.

The oddity is that the country in which they’ve gone native appears to be Nepal.

Ask not where old hippies go to die. The answer is the towns and villages of the Aude, and the centre seems to be Esperaza, which does a lively trade in clothes for which we have no name, but which may have one in Hindi or Pushtu. Here you can have your chakras well and truly sorted, and buy energised crystals for every purpose for a which a crystal might be useful (a lot, apparently), and fifty kinds of herbal tea. Here, too, you can take coffee and listen to young men busking outside the café for small change.

The music is variable. A character who is doubtfully Indian except in the matter of clothes strums at an instrument that for want of knowledge I’ll call a sitar. More often the musicians are French: small, lithe, ugly fellows who look as though they’ll scoop up the money and run if a gendarme appears. They play the guitar or sax and sing Bob Dylan numbers. Their hair is in ringlets and their smiles are sly and engaging.

Here we see an elderly pair of English hippies. In fact we see them three times during the week. They stand in a quiet corner of various markets doing their thing. He plays a thin tune on a small wooden whistle. She accompanies him with a simple rhythm on a hand drum. They have two marionettes rigged so they jig up and down in a crazy clog dance. The first time we see this shtick, it’s amusing. The second time it’s sad. The couple look glum and haunted and neither smile nor speak. I wonder what it’s like to be doing this in all weathers, three or four days a week, always the same routine that no one is seriously interested in. To me they are beached among the wreckage of their youth and ideals, but what do I know? Perhaps they hug themselves at night and thank god they’re not some superior self-satisfied bastard of an author like… well, like me, I suppose.

Which brings me to Fa and last Thursday night. The missus and I have seen a flyer advertising some sort of musical event and so we turn up and find a square and a stage and an open-sided marquee. To judge from the panama hats, the strange shorts and the catalogue dresses that are coming in our direction over the bridge across a stream, most of the English tourists have decided that the affair isn’t for them. Leaving who behind exactly? It’s difficult to say. Refugees from a minor Middle East calamity? An Afghan bikers’ convention? A reunion of the defeated army of the Confederacy? All of these, so it appears. Not to mention dogs and kids in large numbers and a high state of excitement as they dash about the dance floor and between people’s legs.

For all their strangeness, this is a good tempered crowd who would happily cheer a balloon on a stick. The first act is a scratch band. Naturally they are English: their French accents betray them. They play some 60’s standards well enough and are much appreciated by the dogs, kids and old men with white goatee beards and hair tied in a ponytail. Beer glass and fag in hand, people dance. The second turn is a pretty young woman who looks too “spiritual” for her own good. She plays the keyboard slightly out of tune and sings dirges in French, though obviously she too is English. In fact only the third act is French, and he is four years old. He plays a two-fingered version of Für Elise to the great joy of the dogs, kids etcetera. The missus and I hang on, and at last a very decent jazz trio appear – English of course. The singer looks about five feet tall in her Goth boots. The keyboard player has the air of a university lecturer in music. The drummer is taking shelter behind his kit. By now the dogs and kids have buggered off to bed and the survivors of the Confederate army have stripped to their bare skinny chests, which are half covered by their white beards. Cheers and huzzahs all round.

So this is dance night in Fa. Not bad as these things go. The missus and I have stepped out and strutted our stuff, and the human zoo is always entertaining. Who are these people in their bizarre ethnic dress, blown like autumn leaves into this out of the way corner of France? To judge from the market bookstalls, they are heavily into New Age spirituality. And it seems their gurus have advised them to smoke twenty unfiltered roll-ups a day.

26.6.12

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