Burns Night

Monday: A parcel arrives: our ‘Burns Night Party Decoration Pack’. There is a poster with a picture of Robbie Burns and the Selkirk Grace (‘Some hae meat and canna eat’, etc. etc.), a tartan tablecloth, tartan bunting and some small Scottish flags. It’s not exactly Philippe Starck, but needs must. Also in the package are two hats. A large tartan tam-o’-shanter with a fake ginger wig attachment and a smaller tartan pork pie hat. Madame S and I still have to decide which we will wear (neither, I suspect). We expect to be ten for the evening and our table won’t seat that number easily, so instead of haggis, neeps and tatties we are going to have a buffet with various haggis-loaded dainties There will also be Scottish smoked salmon, cranachan, which sounds like a fairly lethal whisky-based trifle, and home-made gingerbread.

We’ve found a collection of Burns poems online along with their French translations, so we plan to recite a couple and let people follow the translations. My Scots is marginally worse than my French, so this should be interesting.

I’ve been put in charge of music. My initial suggestion, a Jimmy Shand/Bay City Rollers medley, is not well received.

Tuesday: We have a courette at the back of our house, a small walled garden or courtyard. It’s très petite, just room for a small raised area with shrubs and bushes, a table and a couple of chairs, but previous owners have put a lot of thought into its layout, and it’s lovely to sit out there in the summer. There is a small altar-like bird table, made of broken paving stones, in the middle of the greenery, and we get a steady stream of visitors, usually sparrows, starlings and pigeons but also the occasional finch or blue tit. One recent arrival, who has quickly established himself as a regular, is an extremely fat blackbird. He’s a cocky little bugger and is clearly aware that I’m watching him through the window. It’s been bugging me for a while that there was something familiar about the way he returned my gaze; a slow, sideways and upwards tilt of the head and a slightly sinister look in his eye. Where had I seen it before? The answer came to me on Monday evening with a TV news item about financial impropriety at Saracens rugby club. Suddenly there on the screen was a clip of the Saracens and England fly half, Owen Farrell, about to take a penalty. The head slowly turning and rising, that weird stare … I wonder if he has any blackbird in his ancestry?

Wednesday: A nice little mystery. In rue Montgautier, a young woman walking in front of us suddenly exclaims in delight as she spots a €10 note in the road. Then she turns to us laughing as she shows us the note, which had been neatly cut in half. Where was the other half? Why would anyone do this?

Years ago when I was teaching in Prague, I had a student, Tibor, who collected playing cards that he found in the street. He was in his early forties and told me that he’d been doing this since he was a teenager. When I asked how many he’d collected, he said nine but two of these were the ace of clubs. I worked out that that this meant, on average, finding one about every three years. Imagine the delight at a new discovery, and then the chagrin of realising that it was a duplicate. Of course he could increase his chances – by keeping an eye out around the casinos in Václavské námĕstí, for instance. I can just see Tibor, who was clearly a little bonkers, roaming the streets of Prague in his nineties, looking for a final elusive three of diamonds.

Thursday: The evening spent in the Biblio Café in rue de la Cathédrale. The Biblio is a lovely place, being both a bar/café and a bookshop where one is encouraged to browse before buying. I’m told that there are people who leave bookmarks in books on the shelves and slowly read through them over a series of visits. The owners, a friendly cheerful bunch, don’t seem to mind. It’s the fourth Thursday of the month, so there is the regular session de musique traditionnelle irlandaise avec Poitin na nGael. Poitin na nGael are a loose collective of musicians who play sessions in various bars around town each month. We don’t know much about them yet, but they are a mixture of French, American and (possibly) Irish individuals living here in Poitiers. Although they are amateurs the standard is high, and the evenings are good fun.

The Biblio has a fine selection of beers; the draught is supplied by the local Pirates du Clain brewery, and I usually stick to this, but there is a range of bottled beers all named after writers. I decided to have a George Orwell, as he died 70 years ago on Monday. It’s delicious, but at 8% it’s not exactly a session beer.

It sounds macabre but the Orwell Foundation have produced an interesting little film about the night Orwell died, narrated by his biographer D J Taylor. It’s only eight minutes long and is rather moving.

Poitin na nGael

Literary Lushes

Friday: Madame S is a stickler for authenticity, so we make a trip to the post office to pick up another parcel from the UK. This is Golden Syrup, needed for the gingerbread and unobtainable in Poitiers. I’d forgotten how handsome the tin is. Then it’s on to Le Comptoir Irlandais to buy a bottle of Aberlour whisky. We already have some Laphroaig, but I thought it would be nice for people to compare two different malts. I’m only thinking of the others, you understand.

“Out of the strong came forth sweetness”

Saturday: Burns Night. To paraphrase Chumbawamba, I had a beer drink, I had a red wine drink, I had a whisky drink (repeat for several hours). The haggis in all its forms was a great success, as were the cranachan and gingerbread. We had Burns readings, French songs from Maryse, Spanish poems from her Mexican husband, Vito, and Tara, our neighbours’ daughter, played her trumpet. We had Aly Bain, Eddi Reader, Big Country, Runrig, Roddy Frame, Orange Juice, The Proclaimers, The Bluebells, and Belle and Sebastian. There was even a bit of Jimmy Shand. In the end, everyone wore both tartan hats at some stage. It was an unforgettable evening. If only I could remember all of it.

Bacon, leeks and haggis

Monday: Today is the feast of St Hilaire of Poitiers (c. 310 – c. 367) Hilaire (Hilary) was bishop of Poitiers and a writer of highly regarded theological texts. The handsome Romanesque church of Saint-Hilaire-le-Grand is rightly seen as one of the jewels in Poitiers’ cultural crown . It is a UNESCO World Heritage site and, to this day, it’s a staging post for international pilgrims en route to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. Perhaps it was with the intention of marking the feast day that some bright spark at the hôtel de ville decided last week to install a decidedly non-Romanesque plastic bottle bank immediately outside the church.

Tuesday: Madame S and I have enrolled to take the DELF (Diplôme d’études en langue française) B2 intermediate level French exam in March. We both passed the pre-intermediate B1 exam in Cambridge before moving to France in 2018 and at the moment that’s the only level required when you apply for French citizenship – although there are rumours that the state may raise this in the future. This is slightly more important for madame because after 31st January she will no longer be an EU citizen, but in any case we are both very keen to improve our French just to make our social life a little easier.

With the exam in mind I have now arranged to have a weekly lesson with our friend Maryse, who has some experience as a French teacher. This is on informal basis in a local café; the only payment required is that I get the coffees and post-lessons beers. We had our first lesson this week and it went very well. For an hour I got to grips with the difference in pronunciation between é and è, and the subjunctive form of avoir and être. In the second hour, during which beer was taken, I found to my delight that my fluency had increased dramatically and I was able to quote lines from Verlaine and Rimbaud, neither of whom I’ve actually ever read.  

Wednesday: A visit to the local surgery to get a prescription renewed. We got Dr K’s name out of PagesJaune when we arrived, and we struck lucky. His English is not great, but on my first visit he managed to convey by mime that he has been on fishing trips to Cork and Kerry and likes Ireland a lot. An old-fashioned, no-nonsense family GP, he’s used to my rampant hypochondria (my suspected heart attack – ‘indigestion, monsieur’, meningitis – ‘an earache, monsieur, you have too much of the wax’) and we now get on very well. A visit costs €25, €17 of which is immediately reimbursed by the health service. The prescription will cost €2 at the pharmacy. Dr K, being a decent man, obviously feels a little embarrassed at my paying the fee for something that only takes five seconds, so he takes my blood pressure, checks my heart rate and asks if there is anything else I need. We watched The Bridge on the River Kwai on TV at the weekend and I’m now wondering if a slight chill I’ve developed recently might just be the start of blackwater fever. He looks me in the eye and I decide to wait a week before bothering him with it.

Thursday: Cycling home from Monoprix, I see a woman shouting out ‘monsieur, monsieur!’ and waving at me. One of the leeks I’d bought to make soup had somehow fallen out of my pannier bag. She hands it to me and, thanking her, I think about saying something about often having had ‘a leek’ in the street but feel it would lose something in translation.

Friday: Bacon and haggis may seem an odd reason for a trip to Paris, but it was why we were on the 07.15 train from Poitiers Gare arriving into Montparnasse at 08.34. We had our petit déjeuner in a café near the station, then a pleasant leisurely walk via the Luxembourg Gardens to the Pompidou Centre to see Bacon en toute lettres. We’d booked tickets but the Centre, currently going through a major refurbishment, seems to be operating some sort of triage system of queues, security checks, and misleading signage to ensure that only the fittest and most dedicated visitors will actually make it to the exhibition – I saw one large German gentleman being led away sobbing only a hundred yards or so from the final turnstile.

The exhibition is magnificent, with a number of rarely seen works, but I think that, like so many of these blockbuster shows, it is just too large and one’s eyes eventually start to glaze over. A subset of just three or four of the many triptychs on show would arguably have made for a more intense and satisfying experience. Nevertheless I’m very glad to have seen it.

After lunch (La Grille Montorgueil – recommended) we undertook the second part of our mission. To return some of the hospitality we have received from various friends and neighbours since arriving in Poitiers, Madame S has decided that we will have a Burns Night celebration next week. (I had suggested a St Patrick’s Day alternative, but she reminded me of my tendency to be a little overcome with emotion on those occasions.) Burns Night means haggis, something that most Poitiers butchers, understandably, do not supply. Le Comptoir Irlandais, our local Irish shop, does have a tinned version, but we decided this wouldn’t do at all. I had envisaged a fairly long trek around specialist épiceries in Paris, but we got lucky in our first port of call, the Marks and Spencer’s food store in Saint-Germain-des-Prés. We bought four, which probably means haggis curry or haggis and chips for a few days afterwards, but as we both love the stuff this is no hardship.

Heading back to the station we had to scurry across Boulevard Raspail in heavy traffic. For a second I had a vision of a headline in the following day’s Le Parisien:

Road accident: bizarre contents of victim’s rucksack