I was reminded of a poem yesterday. In Jenny Joseph’s ‘Warning’, a woman contemplates old age and the freedom it will bring. She has a list of things to look forward to, some of which – spending her pension on brandy, gobbling up free samples in shops, and running her stick along public railings – I find eminently sensible. Others – wearing terrible shirts and eating three pounds of sausages at a sitting – perhaps a little less so.
It’s an interesting poem, more so to me at present because I’m at an age where the line between having such intentions and being able to carry them out is becoming increasingly blurred. Last week, I only narrowly avoided realising one of the woman in the poem’s declared ambitions, ‘I shall go out in my slippers in the rain’, thanks to Madame’s alertness as we were about to leave the house.
I haven’t actually kept a similar list myself. One reason being, perhaps, that the poem is written from the standpoint of a person currently having to live with such strictures as to ‘not swear in the street and set a good example for the children’ – something I’ve never been very good at. Nevertheless, I find the idea is an attractive one, particularly because of the modest scale of the ambitions it describes. Far more sensible than a grandiose bucket list of things to ‘achieve’ before you die – learning Sanskrit, skateboarding down Ben Nevis – written more to impress others than to clarify one’s own thoughts.
As an aside, the nearest I’ve come to such old-age planning has been the steady accumulation, over many years, of books to be read ‘when I have more time … when I retire’. The pile continues to grow, waiting for some now undefined, ever-postponed future date. Reality is finally beginning to creep in. I now accept that I’m never going to read Don Quixote, Crime and Punishment, or Jane Eyre (though I will almost certainly re-read The ABC Murders and Maigret at the Crossroads for the umpteenth time). There will be a provision in my will for a coffin with bookshelves.
Anyway, I was reminded of the poem and its theme last night. One of the most pleasing aspects of the return to near normality is that we can now go out again each evening, around six, for un apéro. Short for apéritif, a pre-dinner drink, it is surely one of the most valuable French contributions to civilisation. One survey on the custom has stated that as many as nine out of ten French people enjoy an apéro, and according to French author Paul Morand, l’apéritif, c’est la prière du soir des Français – ‘the aperitif is the evening prayer of the French’.
The word originates from the Latin term aperire, meaning ‘to open’, and according to some dictionaries, apéritif literally means ‘a laxative liqueur’. I can’t say that I’ve ever found it particularly so, but then my daily Bran Flakes and banana deal with all that sort of thing.
Some people go to the same bar each evening for their apéro, but Madame and I tend to mix and match between half a dozen or so. The choice on any evening will depend on a number of factors including the weather, the length of time since we last visited a particular bar, and whether we are feeling peckish – some bars are more generous with their accompanying nibbles than others. When we first arrived in Poitiers, we noticed how the French seemed to linger over one drink, so when we had finished ours, we would move on to another bar lest we appeared to be lushes. As we got better at recognising faces, we realised that many other people were doing the same, which made life a lot easier.
Yesterday, on a warm summer evening, we sat on the terrace of La Gazette. It’s in Rue Gambetta, the very centre of centre-ville, and the staff are very friendly. We ordered a glass of pinot noir and an Aperol spritz, and these arrived with a bowl containing peanuts and some sort of French cheesy Wotsits. Nothing odd about any of this, apart, perhaps, from the fact that the Aperol spritz was mine.
As I sipped it, it suddenly struck me that four years ago I would probably have been sitting in a pub in Ely, with a few like-minded individuals, having an ‘English apero’, which would have consisted of two, three, sometimes more pints of bitter. Any nibbles would have had to be bought and, in the case of my local, would have consisted of a packet of cheese and onion crisps or a bag of Nobby’s Nuts (dry roasted or ready salted).
For countless years prior to this, I was involved in similar scenarios in various pubs in London. This is not to criticise or denigrate any of this, I hasten to add. I look forward to a time, post-lockdown, when I can return to the UK and re-enact some of these rituals.
Nevertheless, yesterday evening, I realised that something has changed. I looked at my drink. It was bright orange (like Tizer). It came in a large glass with a white straw, two slices of orange, and half a large strawberry. It was absolutely delicious. A younger me would have certainly ordered a pint of beer instead, or failing that, a large glass of red. Now, as I happily sipped my spritz and nibbled my Wotsits, the poem came back to me, and I began to think that terrible shirts might actually be fun to wear.
Things I’ve learnt this week:
God and Jesus are the only characters in The Simpsons to have five fingers on each hand.
British soldiers in the Second World War had a ration of three sheets of toilet paper a day. US soldiers were allowed 22.5 sheets a day.
The German for ‘contraceptive pill’ is Antibabypille.