October 24th, 2006

International Kittens of Mystery

Three Fêtes and a Football Match Part Six (Another Fete, Bobby Charlton and the Basque)

It's June, 1995 again. Somehow I got drunk at a French fete and accidentally signed up to become a professional footballer. A week later we're invited to the football club's fete...

At the Football fête, I was under strict orders - one glass of wine and no Al Jolson songs.

Life can be tough.

But it does have its compensations. As a jouer, I wouldn’t have to pay a penny; all the food and drink was free.

And there was shade; a grove of huge horse chestnut trees provided a thick green canopy over the picnic area - a much more sensible arrangement.

Otherwise it was very similar to the fête at Tuco; masses of food and drink, the whole village decked out in their summer clothes and a grassy riverbank nestling in folds of fields and hills.

It was strange seeing such a diverse assembly of people at a football function. A football meal in England would have been a lad’s night out. The more liberal might have invited wives and girlfriends. But here, everyone was invited - the whole village, young and old. And, just as at Tuco, everyone sat down together, everyone enjoying themselves, not caring if they were sat next to a stranger, a toddler or a grandparent. No sullen groups of teenagers sulked in the corner, wishing they were somewhere else. Everyone mixed in together; all ages, all social backgrounds. If the village had been called Stepford, I’d have panicked.

And if anything the food was even better than at the Tuco fête. A huge cauldron of cassoulet gently simmered on the edge of the picnic area as the early courses came and went. Wine flowed, flutes and dishes were passed around; cured meats of every description, a huge green salad that had just about everything imaginable in it, more wine.

It was a brilliant fête.

Although I couldn't help but feel a mite self-conscious as I overheard scraps of conversation about the English professional who'd been signed up for the coming season. Expectations of certain promotion mixed with incredulous stares and the occasional "C'est Bobby Charlton?"

And then along came the cassoulet, ladled from cauldron to tureen and passed around the tables. And passed around again a few minutes after that. I had a feeling that no one would be allowed to leave until everyone had taken at least three helpings – it was the regional dish, after all.

I was just spooning the last haricot when a brightly-coloured mountain of a man appeared by my left shoulder. After a frenzied bout of hand shaking that somehow managed to involve the occupants of at least four tables – handshaking being contagious in France – we were introduced.

He was Remy, the club’s chef.

"The team has a chef?" I asked incredulously. Surely I’d misheard, what kind of team has its own chef?

A French team, of course. And Racing Club had Remy, who cooked the after-match meal.

"After every match?" I was amazed.

"And after training as well."

I was doubly amazed. Most English teams I’d played for disappeared straight down the pub after a game - and six pints and a packet of peanuts later, we all staggered home. But a sit-down meal? And after training as well?

This was definitely the team to play for.

And this was definitely a chef who liked his food. If you can imagine a giant rugby forward fed on lard for a fortnight and then surgically implanted into Bermuda shorts and a T shirt, then you have some idea of the kind of figure that Remy cut that afternoon.

He was enormous. And wore a smile as colourful as his clothes.

"He's Basque." I heard someone say as though that explained everything.

"Ah, Basque," I said, "Euskadi."

It was my one word of Basque - picked up from a documentary - and it produced startling results.

I was grabbed.

A long lost son couldn't have received a warmer bear hug … or been enveloped further. I wasn't quite sure what Remy said, other than it was very fast, and even more unintelligible than the local patois - the words weren’t so much joined together by ‘r’s as molecularly bonded. But I assumed it went along the lines of - 'Was I Basque too? I thought they said you were English? Aren't you Bobby Charlton?'

As the meal progressed, so did the number of documents I had to sign. There were almost as many forms as there were courses. And this was just the start.

For one, I'd have to have a medical … and insurance … and, being France, an identity card, complete with picture and doctor's signature.

I began to wonder what level of team I'd signed up to play for? Had I unwittingly become a professional? Do village teams normally conduct medicals and employ chefs?

And why did Racing Club sound so familiar?

I had vague memories from the early days of European club football. Wasn't there a famous team called Racing Club back in the sixties?

Still, the season was two months away - plenty of time to get fit - and it's not as though they'd throw me into a big match untried.

Or so I thought.

Until someone mentioned the Cassagne fête - three days of celebration and a football match.

Football match?

"Oui."

A friendly. In three weeks time.

I put down my wedge of Camembert. I knew just how friendly a 'friendly' could be.

(next instalment: the friendliest friendly - a war correspondent's report)

International Kittens of Mystery

Seasonal Madness - Figs in October

The strange weather continues. Yesterday we picked ripe figs from our fig tree. In late October! Usually they're ready in August, or early September for us on the northerly fringes of figdom. But late October?

We had thought we weren't going to get a crop this year. Last year we had a massive crop but this year August was cool and wet and the figs refused to grow.

Then along comes this Indian Summer - which now appears to be turning into an Indian monsoon. I've never seen the fields so wet.