My first trip to France was pretty weird. I played in Brittany mostly. It was hot, as I recall. It’s hard to remember all the places I went to and in what order, but I remember my trip to Le Château-Gontier like one might remember a strange and fantastical dream from one’s childhood.
I was moving around by train, usually Id be met at the platform by someone who’d take me to the venue. It might have been Angers train station, or Laval, or some station with a wonderful, round sounding name. In any case, I was met there by a man called George, who did not speak a word of English. I’d go so far as to say he did not speak at all. I don’t speak French but I tried to on the hour long drive from the train station to the venue, and he just smiled. Maybe the French don’t notice awkward silences but I certainly did.
We finally arrived in the little village of Le Château-Gontier. The venue was a small bar with an old knackered piano in the corner. I set my stuff up. There were quite a few people milling around, they all seemed like nice folk but I wasn’t sure because they were all speaking, impenetrably, in French. I was completely in the dark as to what was going on.
Through complicated charades, I explained that I wished to know where I was going to be sleeping. They showed me up some stairs and into a room directly above the bar. The room had nothing in it but a bed and a pair of giant gollywogs. I know that is not a politically correct term. They were two statues, like the badges you used to get with jam, a woman and a man, and they were life size. Suppose all I can say about that is that I wouldn’t have them in my house.
I had some time to kill before the show so I went for a wander into the village. I bought myself a range of croissants from a most darling little Patisserie, and meandered into a church. It was all white, inside and out, and it was cool and quiet. It was completely empty of human life. Many candles burned silently at the alter. I sat in there for quite some time, listening to echo of nothing and enjoying a rest from the heat of the day.
After a while I moved on, and I think I must have ended up in the centre of the village. There were many people gathered, watching something, I picked my way through them and saw that there was some kind of outdoor theatre going on. There were three adults dressed as school children on the stage, the “boys” seemed to be picking on the “girl” who’s hair was in pig tails. She had freckles drawn on her cheeks and she was crying and shouting and throwing her arms around.
There I was, standing in the dazzling French heat amongst loads of very Frenchy French people, in a tiny French village full of French things, when I heard the voice of a Yorkshire man. Granted, his Yorkshire was a little bit Frenchy, but he was, unmistakably, from Yorkshire. I ran up to him and shouted “are you from Yorkshire!?” He answered in the affirmative.
When I was born I had to go in an incubator for a few days because I was early. I sometimes wonder if the nurses put a hint of a hallucinogenic drug cloud into my breathing apparatus because wherever I go I always come across weird scenes like this one. It doesn’t seem to happen like that for some people.
On walking back to the venue, unexpectedly, the Tour De France rode past me. LOADS of men on bicycles, dressed in lycra. Police cars, motorbikes with loud speakers, ambulances, the whole thing. I had to wait for ages to get across the little street. It’s not often that I feel like I might faint in disbelief, but I certainly felt it at that moment. I’m honestly not making it up.
After I’d played the show, I spent the whole evening talking to the Yorkshire man. He’d lived in Le Château-Gontier for many years. It had been love had led him there and he had two French daughters. I found out everything about the local people and he acted as an interpreter and helped me order my favourite drinks from the bar. I ended up pretty tipsy, and I fell to sleep in the strange room above the empty bar as the glass washing machine hummed and swished into the early hours.