A conspicuous absence

Where is everyone ? La Gazette , Rue Gambetta

We have a new neighbour. A young woman, whom we’ve yet to meet, has moved into no. 22. She replaces the two young women who moved in about a year ago. Neither we nor any of our other neighbours really got to know them, and they have now gone to live in Canada. We got this from Jacqueline, the actress and theatre director who lives directly opposite us at no. 20. At no. 24, on the other side of the new neighbour, is Brigitte, who is retired, though I’m not sure what she actually did for a living. Opposite Brigitte and two doors up from us is Colette, the 80-year- old grande dame who is livelier than many women half her age. She is an active member of Les Soroptimistes, a sort of French Women’s Institute, and is forever gadding about on little jaunts around France. Between Colette and us live Jean-Claude and Bernadette, whom I’ve mentioned before in these pages. On our other side, at no. 17, lives Inès, a shy, polite Spanish lady who keeps herself very much to herself. We all get along well, and I think we’ve been generally very lucky in our neighbours.

Alert readers will have noticed something a little unusual in the above account. Apart from myself, Jean-Claude is the only male living in our immediate vicinity. There are a couple of others, further up and down the street, but I’ve never spoken to any of them. At the occasional neighbourly get-together we attend, it is always just Jean-Claude and myself. In fact, at the last two such gatherings, a drinks party in Jacqueline’s garden and a small soirée at Colette’s to celebrate her birthday, Jean-Claude was away for some reason, and I was the only male present. This doesn’t bother me particularly, but it is a symptom of a more general trend here in Poitiers and something that has puzzled me for some time – a seemingly general shortage of single men.

Now, this needs qualifying. A widely quoted Poitiers statistic is that one in four of the population is a student, and in term-time it is easy to believe. The bars and cafés are full of young people, and amongst them it is normal to see groups of young men sitting and drinking together. It is older men I am referring to, in particular those over the age of 40. When out and about, these seem nearly always to be in the company of their female partners. What is noticeably missing are the clusters of men that I’d got used to seeing in bars wherever I’ve lived in the past. I said ‘single men’ earlier, but these groups usually consist of both bachelors and men who are or were once married. They meet a few times a week, sometimes more, for a couple of drinks, sometimes more. They are a feature of most English pubs, sitting or standing at the bar, chatting, arguing, reminiscing, telling and retelling anecdotes (‘talking bollocks’ in Madame’s succinct phrase). I had no trouble finding bars containing similar groups when I lived in Paris and Prague. On trips to other French cities, I’ve identified bars which, even if empty at the time, had something about them that indicated they were the sort of place where such groups regularly congregate.

Here in Poitiers, these individuals are conspicuous only by their absence. The nearest thing I have found are the two sports bars, the cavernous and slightly soulless Wallaby’s in Rue du Plat d’Étain, and the much more convivial Drop ’n Shoot in Rue du Chaudron d’Or. The latter is run by a very amiable Bill Murray lookalike, and I sometimes go there to watch a French Ligue 1 game. I sit with a few others (the French are generally more interested in the English Premier League than their own) watching the big screen, drinking beer, and eating the complimentary crisps.

The age range is from about 20 to my age. Conversation is usually limited to the occasional shout of derision, delight, or disgust at what is happening on screen. It rarely goes beyond asking which team one wants to win. I attempt the odd conversational gambit, one of many such tried and tested standbys for when conversations flag: ‘How important do you have to be to be assassinated and not just murdered?’, ‘What was Rembrandt’s first name?’, but with limited success. I’ve been working on some more suitable French equivalents: ‘Vous préférez le camembert ou le roquefort?’ Not great, but it’s a start. I know that in the overall scheme of things this is not very important, but I do sometimes get nostalgic for those occasions where a companionable silence is suddenly broken by ‘Leslie Phillips, dead or alive?’

A recent series of articles in the local paper may have offered a clue to the reason for this odd state of affairs. They have been focusing on Poitiers residents and their hobbies. Noticeably, all of the ones I’ve seen so far have been male and over 40. Here are a few examples.

This is Jean-Claude Paumier, a former maths teacher at the Lycée Victor-Hugo who collects sabliers (hourglasses).

© Photo NR

Jean-Claude and the sands of time

Jean-Claude now has over 3,000 of these. I imagine it must be fun to set the largest one going and then see if he can turn all the others over before it runs out.

Next is Philippe Breton, who has turned his basement into a museum of Bruce Springsteen artefacts.

© (Photo Mathieu Herduin)

Phililppe. Born To Run. Maybe.

There’s a nice little film here in which he tells of his years of following Bruce in France and the USA. His ultimate ambition is to invite ‘The Boss’ home to see the museum and share a whisky and cigar with him. All well and good, but it did rather remind me of the Alan Partridge episode where he meets his biggest fan.

Finally, there is Pascal Audin, a local artist and what I would call a collector’s collector. Pascal proudly declares himself a chionosphérophile, sibilumophile, tupiphiliste, arctophile, pyrophiliste, and signopaginophile, which, in old money, means that he collects snow globes, whistles, spinning tops, teddy bears, cigarette lighters, and bookmarks.

© Photo NR

Pascal with some of the 89,000 snow globes in his collection

Now, these fine chaps and their ilk are to be commended for their zeal and devotion to their pursuits. Somehow, though, I have a hunch you won’t be seeing them sitting in a bar together, trying to remember the names of all the actors in the Magnificent Seven. It would appear, then, that Poitiers is a city of hobbyists. Maybe I should give in gracefully and start collecting garden gnomes.

***

This will be the last Postcard from Poitiers for a few weeks. I need to do some work on the website, and I am trying to start a French version – mostly consisting of photographs initially. I plan to restart this site in mid-September.

***

Things I’ve learnt this week:

The official retirement age for Russian men is two years above their average life expectancy.

In 1930, a radium-infused jockstrap called the Scrotal Radiendocrinator went on the market, claiming to boost sexual virility.

The ploughman’s lunch was invented in 1956 by the English Country Cheese Council.

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