The South West of France, and particularly my little corner of the Bearn, is colourful at any time of year. It is in Summer however when the fireworks start (literally). The South West is famous for its ‘fetes’. Unlike a damp English carnival, they last for days – usually incorporating a large weekend (Friday to Sunday) and including much music, dancing, eating and drinking.
The French are nothing if not practical and are also very law observing. It is an offence to be in a state of manifest drunkenness in the streets. This law is suspended locally during the fetes period (otherwise from the Mairie down to the local mice, everyone would be in trouble). It is an offence to drive whilst drunk. ‘Centres de Repos’ are set up so people can go and sleep it off. These normally contain heaps of red and white men lying haphazardly and snoring horrifically… Why red and white? Because that is the colour of fetes – white trousers and shirts, black kepi, red neckerchief and cummerbund.
The local fetes are ‘animated’ by Bandas. Bandas are a particularly south western phenomenon. Each town has its own Banda with a mixture of old and young players. There is a drummer and a leader and the rest are made up of brass instruments. The tunes that they play are very traditional – including Roll out the Barrel – which is enthusiastically taken up by everyone within roaring distance. To my ear, it sounds like they are all playing a slightly different tune. It is a sound which is at the same time raucous and cacophonic and joyful. It is the sound of the summer in the South West.
The first night of the fete usually includes music – awnings and stages are set up. There is a live group (once the most marvellous Flamenco singers and dancers) this is the bit me and husband see. The older and more sensible people go home around midnight and leave the younger element to dance to the ‘Bal’ which is a open air disco.
One particularly vivid memory is when I was trying to find my kids in a crush of French kids in front of the Bal stage. They were quite young at the time and we wanted to extract them to sort out how they were getting home. I am not very tall and I waded into the wall of bodies. Sweat, beer, wine, deodorant, cheap perfume, spit. They were having a marvellous time….
The day after, the town resembles a disaster zone and the local services spend most of the morning cleaning up. There is usually kids entertainment in the afternoons, including juggling, circus skills, fairground. All very sedate. Early evening, the previous night’s revellers emerge and do it all again…
Sunday we have the ‘vide grenier’ and people sell a vast variety of objects for surprisingly high prices. When the stalls are gone, long trestle tables are set up and often up to 300 people eat together. Many people have lived all of their lives in Salies and there is ‘relation familial’ which I fear we will never again have in our Green and Pleasant Land. In the evening is something musical but more on the cultural lines (see Flamenco). A good time is had by all. Much duck is consumed. Mountains of chips are washed down with litres of wine.
When France were playing against England in the national stadium, we were back in England and we watched on telly. Suddenly amongst the cheering and the noise, a tune was struck up. A tune that is played at all our local fetes and we were instantly transported back to Salies and the fete de las Casetas – the night, the heat, the singing and laughing and non stop talking, the tables laden with confit, chips and wine. That is the thing about France, it enters deep into your heart, and no matter where you are, or what you are doing, it only takes a tune to take you back to a moment, a meal, and a memory.