A Breath of French air

From the age of thirteen I was lucky enough to be sent to France every year. Three weeks at Easter, to live en famille.

One of my sister’s exchange pals, Alice, had remained a family friend and was living with us for a year and working as the French Assistante to the Languages Department of my school. She was a barrel of laughs and used to sneak me the occasional Marlboro Red (soft packet – so chic!) when no one was looking and regale me with hilarious tales of the goings on in the staff room at break times. If you were ever unfortunate enough to be sent there on an errand (I say unfortunate because often the messenger was shot), as the door was opened, you’d peer into the fog and while tendrils of smoke snaked round your ankles, belligerent heads slowly swivelled to see who had dared to disturb.  All girls’ school. Coven in the staff room. Difficult to imagine any hilarity, there, then. The Head of the French Department referred to our friend, Alice, as ‘Mamzelle’ which amused Alice as, she told me, this was slang term most often reserved for ladies of a dubious reputation in the 14-18 War. The Head of French was rumoured to be old enough to have had a fiancé sent to that same war. Not possible, and very naughty of Alice to say so, even if The Head of French was a dismally humourless old bat.

 So ‘Mamzelle’ arranged for me to go and stay with a young woman three years my senior, the daughter of a neighbour. Toulouse, city of the pink tiles. I had travelled to Europe quite often with my family, but never as an unaccompanied minor! My first flight alone was uneventful but very exciting, not least because that I had to change planes en route.  I don’t ever think I would have allowed my daughters to do that, those were simpler times, perhaps.

 I stayed in the family apartments; two apartments per floor and the family occupied both. On one side of the hall lived my friend and her mother and on the other lived her maternal grandparents, Maime and Papi. My friend’s apartment was the epitome of elegance, gold, glass and cream furnishings with a decorative, mirror polished walnut dining set; a showpiece, never used. It was never used because across the hall was where it all happened.

Maime spent her entire day at the market and then cooking for the family. Lunch: everyone returned home for a simple meal of three courses, quickly despatched. Dinner was another matter. Dinner lasted the whole evening. The living room was completely taken up by the biggest, broadest dining table I had ever seen. A big telly box in the corner and a dresser down one wall. That was it. No armchairs – no need – we spent the evening at table. We were always five and mostly many more, as various members of this huge extended family arrived. Some would eat, some would arrive in time for dessert or coffee and a smoke. Sometimes they would bring a treat, fruits preserved in liqueur, chocolates or pâtisserie.

I often would stay with Maime. Being three years younger than my exchange pal, she found it a bit tedious trailing me round with her all day. Maime was a beautiful woman with a slate-grey chignon, the darkest eyelashes and always, the bright red lipstick. At home she wore a wrap-around print overall and slippers, but to go to market, a fur collared black coat and small heeled patent leather shoes. A basket over her arm and small handbag in the other hand.

 Among other things, the family owned a high class butcher and charcuterie. A huge glass and chrome emporium with row after row of different sausissons hanging from the ceiling, each in the various stages of curing and drying. Each variety was explained to me and each one given to me to try. All were ‘faites maison’ and they were out of this world! The meat was prepared like none I’d ever seen; escalopes cut fresh from a pale piece of veal, paupiettes on a decorated platter and when I said that I liked steak, particularly, so thick slices of filet were immediately prepared to take home for that evening. Nothing was too much trouble and no effort was spared to show this little English girl their pride in their food and ways.

Home again, Maime would set to the preparations.  Her attention to detail was perfection.  Little things, like the long thin radishes, each one tailed and topped to leave a little green stalk, had three grazes shaved up the sides to accentuate the red and white of nature. Thin slices of sausissons laid out on a platter, dotted with olives and cornichons sliced into fans. A dish of fresh salted butter, a pâté or two. Baguettes fetched from the baker downstairs, often still warm from the early evening bake.

 The table laid, a litre of vin ordinaire and a bottle of water for the girls to mix with it; she would sit one end, nearest the kitchen, with Papi, a frightening, tiny man in a suit he’d nearly shrunk out of, berating us all, furiously, from the top.

The evening meal was a fine, fine time. Les entrées, followed by meat or poultry, followed by vegetable (perhaps épinards a la crème or la bonne purée), followed by cheese, followed by dessert. Coffee and cigarettes and dijestif if there were more than usual family or neighbours calling. Every, single, night – and every single night was an un-repeated feast. Maime had a vast repertoire of delicious things to serve. The only thing that did appear more often, were radis buerre, sausissons and the filet steak, because those were my favourites and she spoiled me to death!

Every night an occasion! Glorious food; but the noise! The blaring telly showing the evening news at eight and loudly discussed by all. The shouting! The arguments! The reprimands! The laughter! It just never let up for a minute and at the head of all this chaos, sat Maime, serene, unperturbed, perhaps calmly spooning, say, sugar into a petit Suisse.

 Of course, the three weeks were up all too soon and leave was taken until the following year.  

 My friend came to us in the summer and although we pushed the boat out for her and did our best with the food and entertainment – Father would take us on a route march of central London, you know; Buck House, Whitehall, St James Park, Fleet Street, Old Bailey, Grays Inn Road (all the haunts of the Senior Civil Servant and Barrister manqué, that he was) – I can’t help feeling that I got the better end of the deal.

Later teenage years, saw me transferred to an exchange in Paris with a whole different set of memories and experiences to set me up for a life time.

What an extremely lucky girl I was……

 ….. and what an extremely lucky woman I am to have lived that.








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