Mirth and Woe: Monsieur le Maire
I've mentioned it before on these pages, but our school French exchange programme should have been a defining time in my life. A two week rite of passage, if you will, that would open my eyes to foreign cultures and mark my entry into the world as a true citizen of Europe.
I can't remember. I was drunk from day one and spent most of the two weeks trying to get off with Trudy, a strategy doomed from the start. I spent long, lonely evenings imagining myself vigorously frotting in her vast cleavage. Alas, she did not.
It is oh-so-easy to be cynical about the episode down the passage of some twenty-six years, but the fact remains that it was the first time that most of us were treated like anything near adults. Give an inch, we took several hundred miles.
The minor inconvenience of a French exchange is having a coach-load of French pupils coming to stay, with someone called Yves living in your house, eating you out of house and home, and leaving hairs in the wash basin as he shaved the gap between his eyebrows. Once that ordeal was well and truly over (although, somewhere, there is a French blogguer writing "An' zen I was sick in an 'edge"), we were set to invade the South of France.
In France, it was the greatest thing that had ever happened to the town of Mazamet, ever. The town's main industry was leather, so the place stunk of dead animal, and their only famous resident - the cyclist Laurant Jalabert - only became famous after riding out of town as quickly as he could.
We were feted as liberating troops, treated with an awed reverence, and given the best of treatment wherever we went.
And how did we, the fourteen-year-old ambassadors of English language and culture, repay this hospitality?
Answer: By getting as pissed as little beetles.
The drinking age in France being fourteen, we kicked the arse out of this like the awful English tourists that we clearly were. Then we would start on the local slappers who hung around the local square, looking for likely young men for we knew-not-what, for we could not think that far ahead.
Needless to say, these were not the demure desmoiselles of Gallic legend. One in particular could, without her teeth, suck a golf ball through a garden hose. It was a traumatic time in my life. Unaware that we British had moved on somewhat from the 1960s, she only charged me 2/6.
The local Spar market got most of our spending money, and our day rucksacks would clink to the sound of 33cl-sized Kronenbourg bottles.
Our stay in Languedoc was to end on a high note - we were to be carted off to the town hall to visit local dignitaries and press. This, as is the tradition in these parts, included an audience with the town's premier citizen M. le Maire.
In the UK, town mayors are usually the most senior town councillor, given a nice chain, a funny hat and free meals for a year. In France, the mayor is literally the most important man in the town, who wields real power and is treated with due respect by all those who deal with him.
We were ushered into the Town Hall, where there was an impressive lunch spread laid out for us. Mr Kipling makes exeedingly good cakes, but Monsieur Keepleeng had not quite reached France, so we had to put up with fondant fancies filled with horse, or something. Which, needless to say, we demolished in about ten minutes, washed down with the illicit contents of our rucksacks. Ernie's day bag, in particular, went from straining at the seams to almost completely empty in a matter of minutes.
Trudy, bless her curvacious bottom, was the only person who touched that most French of specialities: snails. She swallowed all of it and said it tasted like Superglue. Then she ran from the hall leaving a trail of snail-y vomit. She coughed, whereupon it shot across the room. Six!
Then, as a flunky set about the mess with a mop, a short, rotund man was ushered into our presence. The room fell silent, for M. le Maire, proudly wearing his ceremonial sash in the tricolor of France was to address us on this most auspicious of occasions.
"Bonjour" he said, the only word we were to understand for the next fifteen minutes or so.
We had learned the language from the venerable Longman's Audio-Visual French course, much loved of Secondary schools everywhere, and having failed to start his address with the words "Ecoutez et rrrrrrrrrrepetez", we were fucked from the off.
"Pompt de pompt de pompt-pompt" he intoned at length.
He went on for ages, as Ernie continued to neck Kronenbourg after Kronenbourg.
"Rostbif! De lu-lu camembert et les grands fromages d'Angleterre!"
"Booor-ing!" said a slurring Ernie who had clearly had enough.
"Le pompidou est la plus grand stylo de ma mere."
"I need a piss."
"Michel Platini tour de France bouf de bouf-bouf avec un chargement de camion de fromage de camembert!"
"You fat French WANKERRR!"
"Plongez-moi en miel et jetez-moi aux lesbiennes."
Some girls screamed.
Some other girls screamed in French.
"ZUT ALORS!" someone shouted without a hint of irony, followed by "Oh la la la la la!"
"Yaaaaaaaaaarch!" Ernie repeated.
And: "I've wet meself."
M. le Maire rubbed the vomit from his shoes in the time-honoured fashion against the back of his trouser legs, and addressed us in English for the first time.
"When are you goin' 'ome?"
"Tomorrow" said Mr Townsend.
"Ah! Tres bien! Good! Good!"
Frog-marched out of France, and told never to come back.
Result, to be honest.
I left France, however, with a present. A present from Sylvie the village square slapper, that I would cherish and loathe in equal quantities forever. No one would ever have to know where the rubber duck had been, but I did, and it hurt to confront it every day, staring at me with its cold, orange eyes from the center-right of the mantelpiece.
I would return one day. One day, when I would be sick on a mountain. Take that, Rene Artois and your big boobies!