Tuesday, 12 June 2012


A couple of weeks ago I was jogging along a country road outside Marssac sur Tarn in the south of France, and had to duck behind a bush to pee.  As I stood from the squat, happy to have avoided peeing on my shoes, I looked up to see a crowd of cows watching me from the opposite paddock. Seriously, every single cow had its head turned in my direction.  As cows go they were lovely: a uniform, warm orange/red, the colour of a King Charles Spaniel, fine boned, apparently meek in nature, and probably dairy.  (I later tried to identify the breed but not even the internet could help.)

As I moved off up the road they turned their heads and continued to follow me, as if I were the most interesting creature to pass all day.  It was siesta, and too hot to be running, so perhaps they were waiting for me to keel over - which I very nearly did, on account of the alcohol streaming through my bloodstream from the night before, chased by an excessive amount of cholesterol from cheese, sausage and the dessert I just had to have to avoid offending my hosts. 

I turned and ran up a dirt lane unsure where it would lead.  Right along the path a man half way up a tree was watching me.  I thought he was spreading nets across the branches to keep birds from his fruit, but in fact he was waiting to tell me that it was private property and I needed to turn around and go back.  Well, he spoke in French so I guessed that’s what his gesticulating meant. 

Back I trod and found the cows waiting.  They weren’t very talkative but I found them endearing, especially as they were bordered by green fields, rich with golden-topped crops on account of all the rain, and a soothing smattering of listless red poppies.  For not the first or last time I wished I could paint, as the scene was idyllic.

It got me thinking about the fact that actors and performers love to be watched.  Maybe that’s why I loved the old Guinness commercials so much… peering eyes from the guy who only ever said “I like to watch”… the pint itself taking on the characteristics and aura of a watchable star.  Indeed many artists are crippled without an audience… which is perhaps why we fill our non-working time writing blogs or telling funny stories to our friends.  This is hard for introverts or non-exhibitionists to understand, except of course if you get them onto a subject about which they are passionate. 

Take my brother Sean, for instance, he loves to be watched when playing the guitar or Rugby.  But put him in a shop or at a party and he will do everything to sink into the furniture.  Seriously, in all the years I’ve visited him in France I have never been allowed to speak English to him in a bank or shop.  He wants to be French and I, it would seem, am a huge handicap.  So he makes me tell him what I want and then shushes me as we walk through the door.  As if I hadn’t yet learnt this routine, he did it to me again recently.  In fact I suspect he doesn’t really want me to go into ‘his shops’ at all unaccompanied, for fear they’ll make the connection.  He doesn’t say that of course… probably knowing I’d tease him too much and the thrown gauntlet would be far too tempting.  I am impressed he has assimilated well into this community by being so stubborn, dare I say French?  But I did have to laugh when his lovely wife, Muriel, came back to the house with a packet of Vitamin C - for Sean had known I was planning to pop into the local Pharmacy for it.  Oh well, saved me a trip and a few Euros so I wasn't complaining. 

At a party it’s much the same, for Sean is not a big conversationalist – in fact a man of rather few words.  Indeed I think he’s spent his life wondering how the hell he got such a loquacious sister.  God love him though, for he’s happy to take me to meet his friends, proud even, but he really does not want to have to spend the evening translating for me.  He’s a little more accommodating when the dinner party is at his own home, or if we meet just a couple of people, but if it’s going to be a large group the strain of the threatened need to translate is etched on his brow as we mooch toward the threshold.  I tell him not to worry, “I’ll be fine”, but he knows I won’t be able to keep quiet for long. 

His strategy for one evening - a surprise party thrown by my Muriel’s cousin for her Aunty - was that I use sign-language and a gaggle of disconnected French words to talk to the person immediately next to me; rather than try to join the big table conversation if I didn’t understand it.  “Fair enough” I said, particularly as Sean hasn’t been at all well lately and it’s not the time to provoke him.

This approach was a good idea in theory, but of course I’m a performer whether or not the lights are on me and social butterfly could be my middle name.  So if I pick up on a joke or am attracted by the energy of a conversation, I simply can not hold back my curiosity and inevitably look to someone for clarification.  Thus it was this evening, and to my relief (as much as Sean’s) the lady beside me at the table for a time spoke Italian!  She was delighted to translate the conversation into Italian, then translate my comments back into French for the table, such that I got the requisite number of laughs from the evening’s banter not to feel like a social outcast; or God Forbid boring.  Sean just shook his head in disbelief every time my side-kick and I managed to hold centre stage, but at least he’d not been directly implicated.

 This was how I always got by during my early months living in Italy.  I’d find someone who spoke even a little English and would wind up my social interactions from there.  It’s how I get on still when I’ve been away from Italy too long and forget much of what I’ve learnt.  Nevertheless manners often decree that an evening be allowed to take its natural flow without a constant demand for translation, so I did what I always do when I don’t have sufficient language in a foreign country: I found something to read in English; I played with the children (always a winner for they are without judgement and wonderfully imaginative); I ate and drank to excess; and then fell asleep on the sofa near midnight. 

At 2am I woke up.  And they were all standing above me, watching.