I’m writing under pressure. All week long and several times already today, the power has fluctuated, despite all the expensive equipment that EDF installed about a year ago to assure its supply to isolated rural enclaves like this one. It hasn’t made a blind bit of difference. And every time the power cuts off, even momentarily, the computer shuts down. Completely. I’ve given up counting the number of times I’ve adjusted the digital clock on the cooker. I know now which combination of buttons to hold down without having to find and consult the instructions.
Yes, it’s getting like Lagos at the moment. NEPA, the great drummer, Tony Allen, called one of his albums. It’s a Nigerian acronym for never expect power always. Of course it’s not as bad as it must be in that teeming hellish megalopolis, but it’s wearing enough to make you appreciate a stable supply. On Wednesday evening I was racing against time to edit a weighty document for my brother-in-law, knowing that at any minute the computer was likely to shut down without warning – and stay shut. I made it, just, only to find that the pouring rain and the distant rumble of thunder had cut the internet connection instead. So I had to put the file on a USB key, take it to my neighbours’ house and send it via their computer. Only 15 short years ago, I might have turned up with a floppy disk that wasn’t floppy.
So after such uncommon stress, I’m rather looking forward to a pair o’ teeth this evening, or a pair-o, as it’s known in the trade. As you may or may not know, I am the ‘guardian’ of a nearby chateau. I guard it roughly once a week with my fierce security dog, Alf, not so much to ward off intruders, but just to check that nothing untoward has happened since our last visit. Those offering a pair o’ teeth are the most recent co-proprietors of the co-propriety: a charming couple from Brittany, who take a touching pride in owning an apartment in a gen-u-ine chateau, even if it’s a 19th century version rather than one of the stunning medieval numbers that you see dotted around the countryside here, either nestling among trees on the edge of a promontory or parked grandiosely by the river.
|Just one of many|
We have a friend, in fact, who guards one of the more grandiose riverside properties. It’s a great gig: the chateau is owned by the creator of the greatest American TV drama ever to centre around a family of Mafiosi based in New Jersey with theme music by the Alabama 3. He rarely puts in an appearance, so the guardienne and her partner have the run of the place all year long.
But that’s beside the point, other than the fact that we guardians have somehow managed to avoid exchanging pairs of teeth since we’ve known each other. Maybe it’s because neither of us is French. Because this is a social device that works best either between French people or among an international group that includes one or more French people. The British tend to invite each other for ‘drinks’, which can be intimidating for hosts like us with a meagre drinks cabinet. It might be Art Deco, but the contents bear little resemblance to the kind of fully equipped bar run by some compatriots.
One of the nice things about a pair o’ teeth is that it doesn’t demand mulitple choice. Late last autumn, for example, our new neighbours – not the ones to whom I go with a USB key in stormy weather – invited us to drink a pair-o, which comprised a bottle of champagne accompanied by some moreish ‘canopies’. Very nice, too. What’s more, the social device fulfilled its function admirably. They don’t generally go on for too long – round about the two-hour mark tends to be the maximum. Just enough time to sound each other out and gauge whether the chitter-chatter would stretch for a full dinner date. We decided not – and they probably came to the same conclusion. Nice enough people, but few interests in common.
|Canopies a-go go|
Pairs of teeth, though, as the term suggests, generally come in twos. Reciprocation is the name of the tradition. We haven’t yet honoured our neighbours with an invitation, leaving it early last November that we’d get together some sunny evening when we could sit outside and soak up the sounds of nature. We’re still waiting for some sun. If the rain stops some time in August, we can get the neighbours over, ply them with a limited amount of classy alcohol and some canopies of our own devising, chalk off the obligation and that will be that. Thereafter, we can wave cheerily or exchange the time of day should our paths cross, secure in the knowledge that formal social niceties have been met.
This evening, we’ll pick up our other neighbours (the ones to whom I go with a USB key…) and take them with us to the chateau. Olivier is the gardener there, but they haven’t yet met his wife, whereas Debs and I have had the honour of eating Breton crab at their dinner table. After sampling reciprocal British fare here, perhaps they decided it would be safer to revert to the shorter, sharper social soirée. I’m quite glad that there’ll be extra company; there’ll be less onus on us to ‘perform’. My wife has the gift of the gab, so I can normally sit back and let her air her impressive French, but our host has got it in his head that I’m a bit of a wag because I once impersonated the poshest co-proprietor speaking French with a British plum in his mouth. I feel the pressure to come up with a new stand-up routine in a tongue that doesn’t come naturally to me, so end up going home feeling exhausted.
I suspect that they’ve invited all four of us because they’re drumming up allies for the ongoing war of words and sour looks. They’re the only French residents in the chateau and certain others have taken exception to the fact that they let out their apartment during last summer, their first summer since buying the place, to holidaymakers to help pay for the (considerable) charges. Cold shoulders and legal letters have ensued.
Our neighbours will no doubt be supplied with the details. Which means that I’ll be able to sit back and observe. This is my favourite kind of pair of teeth, when I’m not being ‘interviewed’. When I don’t feel that I’ve been asked there for a splash of colour. And what brought you to France, Mr. Sampson? You can understand it; I would be just as inquisitive if the roles were reversed. It’s just that sometimes I feel like a performing seal…
The only other bad thing I can think of about a pair o’ teeth is that it’s customary to bring with us a peace offering, some little and rather useless objet d’art perhaps. I can usually rely on my wife to come up with something suitable, but she was too busy all day Saturday. I’m going to have to sort something out myself before it’s time to go. So I’ll shut down the computer before the weather and the unreliable power supply beats me to it.