Yvette was her usual peremptory self, summoning me: there's a village Sunday lunch on today and Eugene is away harvesting, so you must come with me. She added the clincher: we're going to eat grilled pork. Gisele is coming, too. Off we sped to the neighbouring village. People began to assemble, all the generations chatting to one another. We sipped our aperitifs: plastic thimbles of kir. Mindful that I was replacing a chap, I felt able to sneak a second thimbleful. People here tend to think women don't drink, though the neighbours have got the hang of me by now. As I'm an eccentric foreigner, my unfeminine love for wine is tolerated. You have to pace yourself, though. The Mayennais go in for Slow Sipping and Slow Lunching. I knew that we'd be working our way through the menu for longer than three hours. Scorching heat. Lengthy pauses between courses. We got decorously merry.
Long tables, flanked by benches, made two L-shapes under the trees. Two hundred people sat down together. Our first course, tabbouleh, was rather dull, the grains wetted and flavoured with lemon juice and bits of red pepper. Yvette grumbled: I bet this is just the leftovers from the wedding yesterday. The local restaurant has recently changed hands and the new regime is A Disgrace - mediocre food and cooking; bad service. Everybody is disgruntled. It was where people went for family fetes, where the electricity workers could get a decent lunch. My friend Michel told me all about this disaster when he dropped by for an aperitif. He spent half an hour explaining it. A really serious matter.
The grilled suckling pig, however, turned on the spit by chefs in white aprons, was delicious. Bring me a bone, called Gisele, and her third helping duly arrived. Then we ate a section of factory Camembert and a slice of apricot tart, far too jellied and sweet for my taste. I eavesdropped on conversations about the harvest, the hard work of helping to care for grandchildren, on whispered accounts of illnesses. I noticed some young married women removing themselves a little way, to talk among themselves. I watched Yvette's blonde daughter-in-law, the most beautiful woman in the village, our local Madame Bovary, sexy in flounced brown linen skirt and skimpy vest and gold bangles, sway past. She had an affair with someone in town, because all she'd ever wanted was to open a florist's shop and here she was stuck in the country with four children, unending labour in a muddy farmyard, cows to milk twice a day.
Next day Gisele and Yvette came to lunch. Gisele brought me a clafoutis aux cerises and a dozen eggs. I served cold roast pork with caper-and-tarragon mayonnaise. Yvette nodded: not bad. You will get there eventually.