Friday, 19 September 2008

The brighter side of French village life - it exists

A couple of weeks ago I reported on how a young farmer in central France had faced a systematic hate campaign from someone in his village bent on trying to ruin his attempts to build a successful organic cheese business.

It was a miserable tale that showed the darker side of the French rural mentality and can probably be found in communities large and small in many other countries.

For the sake of balance though, I thought I would also take a look at how village life, or living in a small community can have its up side of course.

This is also a simple tale of how just when you need a hand, you find "good". Someone steps in to help out others, and it's proof perhaps that what makes the world go around is not money or self satisfaction but good old "helping a stranger in need."

As summer winds down into autumn and the days noticeably shorten, the village where I live - just 50 kms from the French capital - throws open its doors to the rest of the world to celebrate its annual "la fĂȘte du village".

Actually although only 1,500 people live here, it's generally an all-round hospitable place. It sits on the edge of one of the largest forests surrounding Paris, is home to a well-known school of painting, has numerous artist's ateliers, restaurants and hotels and is a regular stopping off point for those visiting the stunning town of Fontainebleau and its chateau - just a stone's throw away.

Enough waxing lyrical about the village, enough to say it's beautiful and I'm very fortunate to live here. Back to the fĂȘte.

It took place last weekend, everyone was welcome, the main street was closed off to traffic, restaurants moved tables outside, there were stalls for those who wanted to stock up on local produce, organic honey, goats cheese and most of all Brie as this is also the heartland of that particular type of cheese.

The local butcher even put on a spread - two sittings, lunchtime and evening - and cows from one of his suppliers were tethered to a spot in the centre of the action as he ran a "guess the weight" tombola. The prize - free prime cuts for a year - not from the cow on show I hasten to add.

And to top it all off the weather remained gloriously sunny.

Among the visitors was a young American couple with their two small children. They had arrived early morning (I later learnt) and left their rental vehicle in a car park on the outskirts of the village to spend the rest of the day wandering up and down the main street sampling everything that was edible and drinkable and generally enjoying the festive atmosphere.

On returning to their car in the late afternoon, they discovered that it had been broken into and some of their belongings stolen. Not speaking much French, they asked around for help "Who should they contact?" "Where was the nearest police station?" "We don't speak the language what are we supposed to do?"

There was soon a cluster of local people, many speaking less than perfect English, but eagerly gesticulating and willing to help out the family with suggestions. This was after all big news in such a small place.

To the couple's relief there was one man who spoke perfect English, and after quickly understanding their predicament, he took matters in hand.

Pulling out his mobile 'phone, he called the nearest police station (10 kilometres away) explained what had happened and afterwards informed the couple that they would have to go and file a report for insurance purposes at the station.

They looked appreciative but still a little concerned, and the man, sensing their apprehension said, "I'll drive ahead of you to the police and act as an interpreter if you like.

"And in the meantime if you need to contact the car rental company to tell them what has happened, you can use my phone."

A simply gesture, a little time taken out at the end of the day to help a family who were clearly somewhat out of their depth linguistically and bureaucratically (this is a country ruled by rules) and what could have been a miserable memory was turned around into something they probably won't forget - for all the right reasons.

I know all about this, not because I was the good Samaritan on the day (although I would wish to have reacted in a similar way had I been around) but because the person who came to the couple's assistance in their time of need, is a close friend of mine - a local. He didn't tell me himself what had happened, but someone else did. After all this is a small community and news (of any kind) travels quickly.

So to him, and all others who have the presence of mind to think about helping those out without a second thought, I say "chapeau".

It leaves a warm glow in the heart.

By the way, I entered the tombola, but didn't win the year's supply of prime cuts. My guess of 526 kgs for a Charolais cow was way out. She actually weighed in at a whopping 738 kgs.

Maybe next year I'll fare better.

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