Could turning the clock back fifty years make you happier?
In towns across the South-West of France, there are many interesting and somewhat archaic traditions that align closely to the bizarre. For instance the ‘Festival de Merd’(Festival of shit), is an event that concerns all things brown. Competitors battle against each other to see who can fling a dried cowpat the furthest. They race on modified toilets with wheels and basically celebrate the most basic bowel movement with gusto and flair. Some would say its ‘typical’ French. Or at least that’s according to one expat, Jonathan Scott(70). Jonathan means well though, and revels in the traditional lifestyle.
There are also events where residents can make money, the ‘Vide Grenier’(Empty Attic) is a decorated car boot sale, where vendors stand all day in a makeshift market, selling their old clothes and wares. It’s a great place to find yourself if you ever need a porcelain statue of a Chinese Sage, holding a rather ugly baby. Or if you ever have the desire for a lamp shaped like a claw or a tattered old copy of Hugo’s Notre Dam, Vide Grenier is the place to be.
My journey through ‘empty attics’ and shit festivals landed me in the idyllic Midi-Pyrenees location of Brassac. Hidden by a large canopy of forest, it almost appears as an oasis as you drive the winding roads deeper into the unknown green. The main attraction is a 14th Century castle, which once ‘Belonged to a Baron,’ or so Jonathan Scott tells me. There is a battered old sign signaling the sale of ‘Glacees’(Ice Cream) but apparently according to the expertise of Jonathan, no one’s seen an ice cream cone come out of there in years. We pass a house called ‘Chez-Crazy’ and I briefly wonder if I’m going to be murdered and buried somewhere in the forest. My fears however, were unfounded.
Entering the Salle de Fete in Brassac, a hamlet in Southern France, you would be forgiven for thinking you had stepped into a time machine. Not only is the presence of technology noticeably absent from the party, there is a certain bonhomie among residents that has become a rarity in contemporary Britain. Wine is flowing freely as children play in the dusty courtyard with a tattered ball. An antique tractor decorates the scene, charmingly out of place and topped with a bright umbrella.
Every year, villages and towns all over France participate in something known as ‘En Fete’ which translates loosely as ‘On Party’. This is an occasion where residents gather, have a communal meal and dance until the small hours of the morning. It is a convergence of rich and poor, old and young. It is but a snapshot of the traditions upheld in rural France for centuries.
Refreshingly, one does not notice the zombified and isolated figures of individuals hunched over mobile devices, a sight atypical of larger cities. In fact, the only phone out was mine, as I documented the evening.
One resident- a former Parisienne, who goes by the name Madame Isabelle, spoke of her love of the countryside, ‘People are much friendlier here,’ she says with a smile, ‘So different from Paris. In Paris you don’t even know your neighbours.’
‘In Paris, you don’t even know your neighbours.’-Mdm Isabelle
As the night went on, the children ran and played in the extended garden outside the Salle de Fete, obviously attending to the very important business of snail hunting and candy floss devouring. The ‘Rock band’ stood outside smoking weed and flicking their dreadlocks-a decidedly 60’s vibe, nobody batted an eyelid. There was no bouncer cuffing them and throwing them onto the road. Old women were drinking wine from plastic cups and a man dressed as Super Mario paraded the place on a ride on lawnmower. At 9:30PM (The ticket said 8:30PM) we were all called to enter the hall and sit down for dinner. Steaming bowls of Spaghetti Bolognese were dumped unceremoniously on the table so we could help ourselves, along with jugs of red wine and baskets of French bread. It was like being in a school hall full of old friends, everyone talked, everyone laughed. If I compare it to a night out in Britain, a whirlwind of selfies, vomiting and fights – the contrast is stark.
I might not adorn my town with an old tractor, and maybe I would replace Super Mario with Princess peach- but I would keep the rock band and the heart-warming community spirit.