Living in my little French community is like being in love. Every day I leave my house in the morning and have my heart broken wide open. On the way into town to have my morning coffee, I meet the elderly lady with the walker. She stops me to have a chat about her latest problem with her diabetes medicine or simply to comment on the most recent weather; a few meters further on, the overly rotund man in the automatic wheel chair motors out of his house and stops to say hello and smile, proffering a pat to Salomé’s cocked head. The very thin lady with the glasses and the large hooked nose, walking the shaggy red-haired dog that is friends with Salomé, stops to say good morning while our pets sniff each other cosily. A little further on, Loic from the Realty office where I rented my apartment drives by and honks hello from his car; I wave. Michelle, shapely and dressed to a T as if she had been invited to breakfast by the Mayor of Salies, greets me head-on half way to the Café and we exchange a kiss on the cheek and a few words. Right around the corner before I arrive, Jany who lives in the big house is usually outside to greet me and tell me the latest gossip about people I’ve never heard of or met. Her neighbour, with the cute dog that shares a sniff with Salomé, asks me how I am and I return the pleasantry. On the corner, the young, short round guy who cleans our streets informs me that the dog-poo bags have not yet arrived and smiles and shrugs his shoulders to make sure I know that their absence is not his fault.
By the time I arrive at the Café after so much social life, everyone is already there. First I wave to Rose (Madame Ça Marche, to everyone because when you order anything she cries out “Ca marche!” or “Coming”) and blow her a kiss. Then I join the table where there is always laughter and fun. Chantal, the woman with the short white hair who always arrives first so that she chooses the table, sits with her back to the sun. I used to get irritated because I don’t like to sit with the sun in my face but little by little we have turned our disagreement into a standing jibe: When I ask her to change places with me she says in an exaggerated tone: “Ah, Brianda, tu toujours avec ton problem du soleil” and I shrug my shoulders and answer that one could just as well sit at a table in the shade, with which –laughing- she gets up and gives me her place. Then there is Eliane 2 (Eliane 1 is my age whereas 2 is much younger) who is married to a sculptor and every day brings Josée (who will be 94 in November) to the Café; she fascinates me. I have never seen her in the same pair of earrings and she must have at least 25 different decorative watches. Eliane 1 is the only person I know today who still smokes and she does so with her coffee every morning. Her husband, Bibi (Jean Claude Bidegan), also comes and there is a standing marital play where she recovers the money she has put on the table for her coffee telling her husband that, now that he has come, he can pay for her’s too. Josée, of course, is a special treat. Small and a bit round, with dyed red hair, sun spots on her white skin and glasses, she reminds me of my grandmother and she has the same spark. She often greets Bibi jokingly with “casse pas mes bonbons” which literally means: Don’t bust my balls. Then there is Gege (Gerard) who is one of my favorites. He has long, fine white hair which he wears pulled back into a skinny ponytail that droops halfway down his back, and a bushy white beard and moustache. He is always joking and teasing someone at the table, sometimes me, but mostly Josette, the Laotian woman whom I envy because of her “petite taille”. Isabelle, my Spanish friend who has lived in Salies for over 45 years and whose ex-husband, Jean Louis, frequently joins us, is in Spain at the moment, visiting her 86 year-old mother and won’t be back till the end of September. She is the “dame elegante” that I spoke of in one of my first posts about Salies. She always dresses with everything matching: bag, shoes, purse, umbrella, earrings and necklace. Everything goes with everything else, making her look as if she were going to a luncheon along the Champs Elysées. When she laughs, it is extremely loud and often accentuated by a heartfelt thump with her hand on the table. Occasionally, Yvette Andres joins us. She is an artist (painting and sculpting) who frequently exhibits in the local gallery and whom the group often chides for her lack of sense of direction; she is known to more than occasionally take the wrong turn when driving somewhere. Sometimes YaYa comes (don’t know his real name). He is a teaser, and loves to get my gall giving Salomé more croissant or cookie than Iwould normally allow. She, of course, thinks this is just fine and the moment he arrives he has all her attention. I get and give kisses from everyone, wondering why it is that most of the men have nicknames while none of the women do. C’est comme ça, would be what they would answer if I asked: That’s the way it is.
After 30 to 45 minutes I have finished my coffee and my stay and wishing them a good day I take my leave. My route home is different from the one I take to come so I pass and greet new friends on my way back. Salomé usually decides that she has sacrificed herself putting up with the boring time at the Café and it is now time to go for a little walk. We stroll past the public gardens and a man I have never seen before stops to ask me what breed my dog is. I answer: schnauzer (pronounced schnoozzzeeer in French) and watch while he gives her a few caresses which she very readily accepts; we wish each other a good day and head off in opposite directions. At the corner, the man who owns the gift shop smiles and says hello as he leaves heading for his own cup of coffee. As we pass the bridge that goes back into town, the young man that owns the toy store (handmade wooden toys, nothing plastic) nods bonjour on our passing. A bit further on, we stop at the Coffee Shop (so called, in English) to say hello to the lesbian couple (Severine and Christine) who own it and give a kiss to Corinne from whom I purchase natural beauty products made with aloe which is supposed to be good for your skin. Everyone takes the opportunity to give Salomé a few caresses and say how sweet she is, so she gets her share of love too.
Heading back through town, I go by the restaurant where I will have my meal later and the man with the German Sheppard who has coffee there each morning looks up and smiles. I say hello and he responds with a wave. Melanie, the chef, is at the cash register and I signal to her that I will be back in a while for lunch; she calls out “A tout à l’heure”, which is like saying ‘see you in a while’. Next door, the artist who sculpts in aluminium, large interesting figures (a flying owl, Michael Jackson, the head of a elephant), says ‘bonjour’ as I lean down to pet his little Yorkie that is in love with Salomé. Salomé, herself, stays well away, not at all interested in the little whippersnapper trying to get her attention. Under the arches, the policeman who never smiles nods in my direction as I, in turn, say good-morning to him.
Before getting home, I stop at the local super market for a box of dog goodies which I have just run out of. My favorite cashier is there. He is a good-looking man of undetermined age (but no long young, although he wouldn’t be 65 because he hasn’t retired) and today he winks at me as he rings up my purchase. I smile, wink back and say something in which I address him in the familiar “tu”, which is never, never to be used with anyone but the most intimate of friends or family. I immediately correct myself, “vous” and he says I can address him as “tu”. So, I say that then he should address me also as “tu” (the verb is ‘tutoyer’) and he agrees to that. We are both laughing and I am feeling all warm inside. What fun it is to flirt a bit at my age!
On the corner, the man who parks the food truck there on Saturdays and Sundays selling roast chickens or special dishes for a weekend noon meal (such as Spanish paella, Basque axoa, Indian couscous or German sauerkraut with pork) smiles and waves as I go by. The lady who owns the boulangerie where I buy my croissants on Sundays steps out of her shop and I stop to chat for a moment. She has done a marvellous job of dieting and has lost around 15 kgs. I comment how well she looks and she beams.
By the time I get home it is almost lunchtime so I barely have time to check in on my computer and answer some e-mails from friends and family in Spain, Mexico and the USA, and I am off again. As it is seldom that I walk to or from town without running into someone I know that says hello or someone who stops me to admire my dog, the usual interchanges take place again on my way back to the restaurant.
The restaurant where I eat almost every day is called La Grignotine (from the French grignoter which means to snack). There, apart from Melanie and Eric who own and run the place and are practically like family to me, there are always people to greet and talk to. Invariably, André is there. He is a single older man (by about 7-10 years) with whom I have more than frequently coincided in noon-hour meals out. We used to see each other in the restaurant of the small hotel around the corner from my building before the Grignotine existed, but now have changed, both thankful for the healthy food including always veggies and salad (something seldom available in the other place). André and I kiss on the cheek, he fondles Salomé’s ears and I usually inquire briefly about his health and the menu de jour as he almost always has finished by the time I arrive. Anika is someone else usually eating alone there. When I first met her she was depressed, having recently lost her husband, according to her, although it had been more than five years. Since then she has definitely recovered and we always ask about one another’s day. Ludovic and his mother (from South Africa) often are there and always say hello. And invariably someone from the English colony in the area whom I will be more or less familiar with will be there too. Occasionally a middle-aged woman called Françoise will come and she has once or twice asked if we can sit together. She is a talker who can make my meal hour absolutely uncomfortable after ten minutes so I try to avoid looking available when she comes. If I meet her on the street it is the same story; after about five minutes of shifting from one foot to the other I make some excuse and run off. Occasionally I have company for lunch: my American friend Janice from Rive Haute; Annie my favorite English friend or my once-in-a-while visitors, and this is a special treat.
My walk home seldom encounters interruptions as most people are in their homes or in restaurants eating, and the rest of the afternoon –except for a short stint with Salome, throwing the ball for her in the garden- I spend at home. In the evening, before going to bed, I take Salomé out for her last walk and pee. It is usually between 9:30 and 10:30. Many nights I run into a neighbour who also walks her Cavalier King Charles spaniel, Archie, at the same time. When this happens, we walk together and I get to practice my French. And every once in a blue moon, my dear friend Christophe passes by cycling to his new ecological house on the hilltop. When this happens, he stops and we talk. I can sincerely say that I love Christophe. Apart from the fact that he fixes my computer and my smart phone when the need arises, he is a very special person, one of those rare specimens not interested in money, totally committed to the enjoyment and the betterment of life in all its areas and as kind and generous as they come. He is not much older than my son so I consider it a privilege to be included amongst his friends. When I do run into him, the day or night time walk becomes a special event.
So, even though I enjoy travelling and seeing other places, and occasionally visiting my favorite city which is Madrid, or spending time with my children whom I adore, I cannot imagine living any place else. How in the world could I ever consider moving someplace where people do not even look you in the eye when passing on the street, much less smile or wish you a good day? Or moving to a city where everyone is isolated in their house or their car and knows nothing –nor wants to- of the people living on the same street? Even here, living farther away and having to move about in my car would not be the same. The way it is I belong to a community of warm, friendly neighbours that make me feel more at home than I ever have before.