April 5th, 2006

International Kittens of Mystery

Cars, Cartes and Campagne - Part Three (The Giant Elk, His Wife and the Roadblock)

(The story so far - I'd just been flagged down at a police roadblock. In a car with no tax disc, no documents and a forged ‘Get out of jail free’ card.)

I had been on my way to Samatan market. A trip I didn't have to make but one I'd thought would be fun. Our neighbour, Claudine, had recommended it - it's good to have someone else to blame. She'd said it was the largest local market by far and something not to be missed. It was held every Monday and attracted huge crowds.

No one said anything about police roadblocks.

It had all started when we dropped in at Claudine’s for hay and straw … and came home with four pints of milk. Nothing to do with our inability to speak French this time but the unfailing generosity of our neighbours.

We arrived at dusk to a deserted farmyard. Deserted, that is, except for four lounging dogs lying by the gate. Eventually, the smallest and most alert of the four guard dogs noticed our intrusion and raised the alarm. The largest dog, the redoubtable gardien de vache, opened a solitary eye, cast an appraising look in our direction, sniffed and went back to sleep. Not worth the bother.

Claudine appeared in the doorway of an old stone building at the side of the yard and beckoned us in. We’d arrived in the middle of milking.

As we stepped though into the light we wondered what we’d find. French farmers were generally vilified, depending on which section of the English press you read, as either inefficient and subsidy-ridden or barbaric animal torturers who loved nothing better than to import cuddly English calves and lock them up in veal crates. As usual, the truth was somewhat different.

There were twenty cows of assorted breeds, colours and ages. Including three very young calves, who, far from being housed in veal crates, were still suckling from their mothers.

This was not modern industrial farming. No gleaming stainless steel vat or state-of-the-art milking parlour. No vast homogenous herd, economies of scale or labour-saving devices. This was a small family farm as small family farms used to be. When all animals had names and labour was long, hard and mostly manual. The only hint of technology I could see was a small portable milking cluster which Roger was carrying from cow to cow.

Steam rose from the backs of the cattle as we took out our script and launched into our prepared speech. Did they have any hay or straw that we could buy?

Claudine shook her head and then burst into a stream of tightly packed and indecipherable French.

It was the longest ‘no’ I’d ever heard.

Or was it a ‘yes’?

Gradually the odd word untangled itself from amongst the ‘r’s. They couldn’t sell us any hay or straw because we were voisins – neighbours. They’d give us a couple of bales instead.

We tried to press money on them. More head shaking, more ‘r’s, lots of voisins. This was the campagne, a land where neighbours helped each other out.

And did we want any milk?

Before we could answer, Roger came out from behind a cow with the milking cluster and Claudine was off looking for something to put the milk in.

Did we want any cows?

I looked at Shelagh, had I heard that correctly? Had Roger offered us a cow? Were we about to walk back up the hill carrying a bucket of milk and leading a cow? Would it be bad manners to decline a voisin’s gift? Or were we supposed to offer something in exchange? Gypsy, for instance.

I was just warming to the idea of an animal exchange, when Claudine launched into a glowing account of Samatan market. You could buy anything there. If we wanted to have cattle, that would be the place to go.

Aha, now, I understood.

By this time our French conversational skills were pretty much exhausted. We managed a few more sentences about cows and weather but that was about it. To me, conversing in French is very much like holding your breath - after a minute, I’m spent and speechless. Words and phrases were flying over my head as Roger and Claudine chattered on about this and that. I looked at Shelagh, she looked at me. What were they saying? Claudine and Roger tempted us with a few more sentences but even after three repeats I was still lost.

A silence descended.

An awkward silence that I felt compelled to fill.

Always a big mistake.

I thought I’d try and work horses into the conversation – find a common subject we could talk about. I wondered if they’d ever used horses on their farm.

“No, never,” they said.

I should have quit at that point. I’d asked a question and received an answer I understood. My daily quota had been filled. But my interest had been piqued. What had they used on the farm before the advent of the tractor? Oxen? I’d seen a picture showing a working oxen team pulling a plough in the Central Massif as late as 1970. Had they used oxen here?

The conversation went downhill from that point. What was the French for ox? Guidebooks won’t tell you. They don’t cover rural small talk. Plenty of phrases for 'Where is the station?' and 'Can you tell me where the toilets are?' but 'Where are the oxen?' – don’t even bother to look.

I tried grande vache, rationalising that a big cow was worth a shot.

It wasn’t.

Shelagh’s eyes had rolled into the top of her head and she was slowly, sidling away from the conversation. Claudine and Roger were transfixed. Big cow? What was that about the big cow?

I pressed on, if I couldn’t find the words, I’d mime them. I fastened my wrists to the top of my head. But before I could stop myself my fingers splayed and my hands started waggling. My horns had evolved into antlers.

And immediately frightened off the few French nouns that I had left.

And in between the waggling, came the babbling.

I tried to say, 'In England, before tractors, we used to have oxen.' It came out more like, 'In England, all tractors are preceded by giant elk.'

If not a man with a red flag.

It was time to go.

Shelagh grabbed hold of my left antler and tugged me towards the door.

(to be continued)