Spring is a magical time – the maples and hornbeams are budding, dusting with pale green the grim lattice of dark bare branches that enclosed us all winter. With the birds back in force, the wisteria flowering and Wordsworth’s hosts of golden daffodils just finishing their annual march through the Quercy, the warm poetry of nature renewed can at last return to our frozen souls. I suppose my soul’s up for it, but quite frankly the rest of me is just too tired.
Every year it’s the same. When we close up the cottages for the winter, Sophia and I tell each other that this year, this year we will get most of the fixing up work done early, so that spring will not be stressful. And we always make a good start of it. But then winter makes its own demands and imposes its own limits. The cottages – not built with winter in mind – grow too cold to heat efficiently. So rather than struggle to get paint onto the walls before it freezes onto the brush, we shift our energies to the house, the land, other obligations. And next thing we know, there we are in March, every single March, making a mad dash to get the place in order before our first guests arrive for the Easter holidays.
It’s not just us – the entire countryside is on the move, getting ready for summer. Caves and castles are opening for business. Even the farmers seem intent on beautifying the place, carving the earth into immaculately ploughed fields, row after row of red-brown clouts of soil snaking deftly in synch with the surrounding landscape. When the tourists arrive, they will see the Quercy in its rightful state of pristine beauty, a land of sunshine and vineyards and clean tidy medieval villages.
Unfortunately the mass of work that goes into making everything picturesque seems to come all at once, and it’s not always so charming. Amid all the efforts to restore our surroundings to their perfect state of pretty, amid the cleaning and digging, the frantic painting and one particularly astounding feat of amateur electrician work that I honestly think could be compared to brain surgery, I found myself faced last Monday with yet another inconveniently-timed reminder of life’s less-picturesque side. I had to attend a school Parents Association (the “APE”) meeting.
I’m not going to prevaricate - these meetings are like dental surgery. I like the people, at least. Catherine the baker’s wife is the APE secretary, and she’s a good guarantee that the meeting will stay lively. Claire, Sylvie, Jean – I suppose I should be grateful for the social aspect of it. But after a few minutes of friendly chit chat, the fun and games stops, and the dark side of this otherwise idyllic world raises its venomous head. You see, apart from always cropping up when everyone is at their busiest, these meetings are entirely in French.
I don’t mean the language. That’s hard enough, granted, but the real issue is the French approach to doing business. There is a persistent Anglophone stereotype of the French as obsessed with talking in circles and hanging themselves up over bureaucratic nonsense. I get very defensive when confronted with stereotypes about the French, but this one’s true. Monday proved it. I spent three hours of my life listening to my dear friends talk about sausages.
The purpose of the meeting was to discuss arrangements for the Marché des Ecoles, the second annual plants and pastries sale we hold to raise money for everything from books to school outings. It was just growing dark but there was still a faint red glow on the honey-colored stones as I drove up the winding narrow road to the tiny hilltop village of Cassagnes for the meeting. This is good, I thought, this is real. We live here not to be permanent tourists gawking at pretty villages, but to integrate, to do my part. But the rosy glow vanished as soon as I entered that village hall. There were twelve people at that meeting, and at no point were less than four of them speaking. While the G20 tackled the global economic crisis in London, the Quercy G12 negotiated the details of sourcing and preparing the sausages and frites that are to be sold as lunch at the plant sale. The frites are sold in little open carton boxes. So do we need plates for the sausages? No, people put their sausages on top of their carton of french fries. But what about those people who want sausages but no fries? And what about bread? Is it included in the price of the sausage or do people need to pay extra. Should those who eat their sausages without bread be penalized by having to pay for bread they don’t want? We wouldn't want to show prejudice against all the Atkins diet aficionados in the Quercy, now would we? In English, viewed from a distance, it would have been worthy of Monty Python. Up close and in French, an hour of this becomes a human rights issue.
And then, as if the various sausage and fries controversies weren’t enervating enough, things got political. I think there is some kind of strange rule that the smaller the community, the more complicated the politics. The three villages of Montcabrier, Cassagnes and St. Martin-le-Redon share a nursery and elementary school. The nursery school is at St. Martin and the elementary is in Montcabrier. Each of these schools has a separate Parents Association board, each with its own President, secretary and treasurer, as well as a second for each position. That makes a total of 12 Parents Association board members for a total of 48 kids.
Even in France this bureaucracy/constituency ratio of 1 to 4 seems kind of extreme, and yet, the simple suggestion of merging the boards has become a battle that makes the run-up to the invasion of Iraq look congenial. We Cabrimontains, as the largest village of our three-village regroupement scolaire, tend to let our power – we are nearly 400-strong, after all, compared to just under 200 souls in Cassagnes and in St. Martin - give us imperial pretensions. Or so you might think listening to the debate. The fact is that the “debate” seemed to center more around how to organize a vote on the issue. Is it appropriate just to let people tick a box, or must we hold a meeting? The conclusion was that if we hold a meeting, only the people against the merger would bother to show up. But the by-laws seem to require a meeting, and a group of die-hards from St. Martin would insist on their God-given rights. We discussed the various options, and heard several impassioned pleas for a democratic resolution (including assured anonymity in the balloting procedures) until midnight rolled around. Had we stayed any longer, I have no doubt we would have discussed dimpled chads.
As it was, we finally all agreed not to vote on whether or not to have a vote, and then opened a bottle of cider and a packet of cookies to celebrate. Democracy was tested and endured, and the treasured independence of the good people of St. Martin was preserved.
We all stacked the chairs and tables back against the wall of the village hall, turned out the lights and locked the doors before heading home. It was a clear night, the roads silent and empty as I wound my way down the Theze Valley toward home. The moon hung as a yellow crescent low on the horizon, a Cheshire Cat grin suspended in the darkness. Not a single reason to object to the merger had been produced in that entire three-hour meeting. The moon kept smiling, and I couldn’t help but smile back. Sometimes I have no idea why we’re here. I’m still glad we are.