Oliver Wendell Holmes once wrote “What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared with what lies within us.” The quote appeals to me, perhaps because living abroad involves a lot of looking within. Inevitable daily reminders of your own otherness necessitate an almost constant process of self-reevaluation. This week I looked within, and found something unexpected and disturbing. There, among the hopes and fears, the secrets and shadows, lurks a love of bingo.
I was not brought up to love bingo. Bingo is what elderly aunts play on cruise ships and in retirement homes. I’m 38 years old, male, Harvard educated, city-born, and I’m sure for all sorts of other reasons totally outside the bingo paradigm as I have always understood it.
So the sheer delight I felt the other night at our school Loto as I, the operator of the boulier no less, turned the handle, withdrew the numbered plastic balls and handed them to the nursery school teacher to be read out, gave me cause for concern. Sure, it was all dressed up as a quaint rural French tradition called “le Loto,” pronounced “low tow.” I could easily try to intellectualize it as a cultural experience, or write it off as an amusing Peter-Mayle-esque adventure in mingling with the locals, or use it as a pretext to feel smug about having “integrated.” In fact, I’ve done all those things. But even sitting here in my study, surrounded by books, striving to live the part of the intellectual country gentleman, I can’t shake the feeling that the game itself if fun.
The preparations were not. It takes some organizing and some manpower to run a village bingo night. The evening before about a dozen of us, parents and members of the village council, gathered in front of the “Salle de Fetes,” or village hall, and spent the next few hours carrying trestle tables and chairs and even pew benches out of the church and setting them up in the three adjoining rooms of the village hall, the mayor’s office and the larger of the two classrooms of Sebastian’s school. Saturday afternoon was spent organizing all the donated or purchased items into boxes to form prizes for each round of “quine” (one row on your bingo card), “double quine” (you can guess…), or “carton plein” (a full card). Lucky players might go home with just about anything - a DVD player, a coffee maker, vases, corkscrews, a large carved wooden Porcini mushroom, lighting fixtures, homemade pâté. Some of the prizes couldn’t go into boxes, so we wrote out little I.O.U.s for the wild boar haunch courtesy of the Montcabrier Hunters' Association or for the several live chickens, ducks and rabbits donated by farmers.
But once it was all in place, things ran like clockwork. It was a cold night, and the afternoon’s rain was now freezing on the roads, but still they came. An hour before we were scheduled to start, even as we were still divvying up the cash boxes between the desk where the bingo cards were sold and the “café,” the serious players began to arrive. Older women mostly, in comfortable baggy clothing and sporting their own plastified metal chips and magnetized batons with which they could effortlessly gather up the chips at the end of each round. The amateurs arrived a bit later, families with kids in tow, some with their own chips, some scooping up a cupful of dried corn kernels from a sack at the entrance.
My boulier and I were lodged in a corner up on stage, and at the table next to me were several of these hard-core enthusiasts. One deftly managed to spread her chips among 18 bingo cards, despite the surprisingly fast pace at which I drew and the teacher called out the numbers. Another kept turning around to stare at the boulier, and as if to ensure against foul play. Under the pressure of her gaze, each time I pulled out a number I felt inexplicably guilty.
And so for a solid three hours, with one break for coffee and homemade crèpes wrapped in tinfoil, I turned that tumbler and the numbers were called. An occasional wave of excitement or laughter rippled through the crowd as someone called out “quine” or, more often, let out an anguished cry when they missed out on winning by just one number. It was intense and exhausting. When the prizes were all given out, a couple dozen people stayed behind, not just the organizers, but random others as well, to put everything back in place. Trestle tables were disassembled. Church pews returned to their rightful home. The mayor’s desk moved back into place ready for Monday morning. And then, the work done, the crowd dispersed again. I couldn’t help feeling a little sad as we locked the door. On that bleak cold night, far from anything that could be called a city, surrounded by the frosty hush of a country winter, that bright noisy village hall had seemed like the warm center of the universe. The Loto is so popular, I realized, because out here, with so little else going on, it is the ultimate cure for rural loneliness.
The Loto was a big success – we raised a good 3000 euros for the school – and it has a new fan. Despite my lingering suspicion that I had been so readily offered the job of operating the boulier because in it lurked some hidden horror, the only downside had been a painful arm from turning that damned tumbler. And that I had been unable to play. The wild boar haunch, alas, will grace someone else’s table this Christmas.
But in a few weeks the Football Association is hosting its own Loto...