One social event in a week here is rare enough; two is aberrant, but three is charting new territory. The week was nothing short of dizzy.
It started, as weeks tend to, on a Monday. The three of us went to Brive to meet up with our ceramicist of choice, Ingrid Squirrell, who bought our old house in the Corrèze. She's here for a couple of weeks: to check on the house and get the oven fired up to do some potting. She got here to find that the gas boiler wasn't working and there was no water in the house, so she's been freezing despite the glorious winter sunshine. Freezing in the company of friends who had rented out their house near Argentat to some Brits, over here for a fortnight to ski in the mountains of the Cantal. Her friend, Sue, is a potter, too. Ingrid had left her clay in water to keep it malleable, but the water was so cold that the process of working it almost froze their fingers off.
We were to meet the three of them for a pizza at the Napoli followed by a film at the Rex. We went early enough to stock up on whole foods at Vital Form before they closed at seven. The place calls itself a supermarket, but the prices are more in keeping with a boutique. We knew how expensive whole foods were in France when we moved over here permanently and would bring stuff in bulk from Infinity Foods in Brighton or Lembas in Sheffield. Which was fine until the dispiriting day when we had to jettison 5kg of mite-infested sesame seeds. Now we're part of a small private co-operative that orders these foodstuffs in bulk.
Even so, we go to Vital Form sufficiently often for Debs to keep an in-store reward card. It's a big deal. They stamp your card when you spend over €15 and a fully stamped card entitles the bearer to a mouth-watering 2% off their next purchase. We spent nearly €70 on Monday evening and my wife valiantly argued that her card should be stamped three or four times, but this was far too complicated for the counter staff. What one should do, of course, is to go round three or four times for amounts of €15 or just over. But therein madness lies. Personally, I value my sanity at a little more than a 2% discount.
At the cinema, we were told in no uncertain terms that we couldn't buy our tickets any earlier than half an hour in advance of the 9 o'clock showing. Forget it, Jake. It's France... Being nominally vegetarians in France, as are two of the three friends we met outside the restaurant, we don't eat out much. Pizzas, like omelettes, have a limited appeal and, on Monday evening, I found my pizza a little too doughy and salty. The green salad was drowned in a dressing with far too much vinegar, so even though it's rather nice from time to time to eat in the company of one's fellow humans, it wasn't a memorable culinary experience.
Besides, we learnt from Ingrid that a nice man from our old village – an active man who kept himself fit enough in his retirement to enjoy equestrian holidays in far-off places like Rajasthan and Patagonia – has been struck down by some kind of cancer in his back, which has confined him to a wheelchair. And we heard from Ingrid's friends about a 'shed-tax'. A legacy, apparently, of Sir Cosy's presidency, it's a one-off tax on sheds, car ports and any other kind of independent outhouse that's calculated, allegedly, at around €700 per square metre. If true, it puts the kibosh on our proposed straw-bale wood shelter. Forget it, Jake. It's France. Being France, it could well be true. Nothing like a new tax to keep the civil servants in business, while keeping individual ambition in check. It'll do wonders for the DIY trade, too.
Never mind, eh? A Most Violent Year was a most entertaining film. Set in New York in 1981, just before zero tolerance, the film was partly shot in Detroit to give the urban scenes a convincing air of dilapidation. The subway carriage totally covered in rabid graffiti brought back memories of travelling from JFK to the centre of Manhattan on my first visit to New York at around this time. Uncomfortable memories of the fear I felt, clutching my bag to my chest as I scanned the carriage for potential muggers. In those days, New York had the kind of reputation for crime that we now associate with places like Johannesburg.
Come Friday evening and we were able to dress up in our glad rags once more, this time for the annual Cabaret du Coeur at Curemonte. Now in its 11th year following the tsunami of December, 2004, in aid of which it was originally conceived, this is something mounted – roughly speaking – by the same small private whole food co-operative I spoke of. Not so small these days, actually. We must be more than a hundred strong. Certainly, the little salle de fètes seemed even more packed than it usually is. Some years I take part (often in the capacity of an MC), others I don't – depending on factors such as motivation, inspiration and commitment to rehearsals. January's familial disruptions gave me the excuse I needed to sit back in the audience and enjoy the hard work and artistic endeavour of others.
In some ways, it was the best yet. It was shorter and tighter, and having a dedicated stage manager made the business of getting one act off and the next one on a slicker affair and less reminiscent of a parade of enthusiastic amateurs. Our Dutch friend, Dmitri, glowed with the pride of having obtained a whole row of cinema seats from somewhere, I think, in St. Céré, for a sketch that seemed inspired – but probably wasn't – by Sid Caesar's Your Show of Shows. He showed up again on banjo in a nice version of 'Cotton-Eyed Joe', made famous by Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys.
His wife, Margot, was part of a hilarious chorus line based on something spotted originally online. Seven women side by side by Sondheim in shades and dressed in black bar two-tone leggings: one black leg, one white. So, by lining up with adjacent white legs and black legs and choreographing the kicks, you achieve an effect of two white or two black legs raised off the ground at the same time. Rather like the comedian Harry Worth's old routine of raising both arms and legs off the ground at the same time using the angle of a shop window – if you can remember that far back. Anyway, take it from me, it was clever, deceptively simple and very funny.
The three Steves – the Rockin' Royales – finished things off with nice versions of 'Fly Me to the Moon' and 'Every Day I Have the Blues', and we were able to slip away into the wet night and leave everyone else to the tidying and washing up. I've contributed in previous years, so the guilt wasn't too burdensome. It meant, too, that we were tucked up in bed before midnight.
Which was just as well, because we were off out the next night. The press were gathered outside to report on the egregious event for the local paper. Looking tired and shell-shocked, the Sampson family slipped wearily out of their home for a meal with four of their oldest friends in France. Sometime after midnight, their car returned. Bearing a hand-picked overnight log, man of the house and femme de foyer, Mark, told us that they'd had a cracking evening. 'We talked of those early days in a foreign land, when we would spend time socialising with people whom hindsight would reveal as glaringly unsuitable. The past seems like a different country now.'
Oh, and I forgot to tell the reporters that we spent at least half an hour analysing the French word for undertaker. While the unofficial word is a croque-mort (or dead-biter), the official word is entrepreneur. Literally, someone who undertakes a task – which is presumably the same derivation as the English word. In high society, one talks of such esoteric matters.