Well, here we are in a floating tin can in the middle of a heatwave and slap bang in the middle of Darkest Rural France.
Ah yes, Darkest Rural France, a riddle, wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. The inland waterway system runs through the full gamut of French human habitats(1)
, from cosmopolitan cities like Paris and Lyon to isolated agricultural hamlets where the inhabitants' entire social milieu, including the ferret, can be counted on the remaining fingers of one hand. (It's a very dangerous field of work, agriculture - on a par with fishermen, steel erectors on skyscrapers and saturation diving underwater welders).
In between these contrasting centres of human activity are small towns such as Chalon sur Saône, and over-sized villages, such as Sainte-Jean-de-Losne, but most of the network runs through Darkest Rural France, where tumbleweed bounces and cartwheels erratically down the eerily deserted streets and the locals still point at aeroplanes.
Darkest Rural France, which appears to house the last few remaining pockets of pre-rationalist belief systems, all of which could give the Amish a run for their money in the anti-technology stakes This is a culture for whom even the humble cigarette lighter is the work of The Devil:
See! - fire comes from his fingertips! Burn the witch!
What's that you say - he's already on fire and doesn't seem much bothered by it?
Good point. Chuck a leather bucket of stale urine over him. That should do the trick."
Only in French, of course:
Voir! La sorcellerie!
Voyez - le feu vient du bout de ses doigts ! Brûler la sorcière!
Qu'est-ce que vous dites - il est déjà en feu et ne semble pas trop dérangé ?
Bon point. Jetez un seau d'urine périmée sur lui.
Cela devrait faire l'affaire.
(Middle French would have been better, and even more insufferably posy, but I couldn't find it on Google Translate.)
So, back to the matter of Darkest Rural France, a cultural and psychological bolthole which makes Children of the Corn
and The Wicker Man
look like documentaries, and where the internet is an abomination against both Nature and The Godly. Actually, they might just have a point with that last one, but since I'm using the abysmal telecoms infrastructure around these parts as an excuse for delays in updating this blog and my tardy replies to emails, I'll let it ride.
In keeping with the rustic horror movie conceit, if you unaccountably manage to actually come across a living, breathing inhabitant, (s)he will, without fail, be open, friendly, smiling, helpful, tolerant, and accommodating.
This just makes me more nervous.
As does the pervasive smell of garlic, the hoarse aural backdrop of cawing crows, the mournful tolling of the cracked church bell, and the fact that most of the locals seem compelled to avoid sunlight. In my fevered imaginings, this makes them odds-on to be either vampires or consultant dermatologists(2)
OK, I plead guilty without mitigation to wilful exaggeration, unsubstantiated assertions, and puerile fantasising, but there's still something unsettling about rural France. It really is big, and it really is empty, absolutely devoid of any extant examples of homo sapiens
. Despite its abject dearth of human inhabitants, the whole stepfordesque landscape, both private and communal, is beautifully manicured to the point of appearing to be a model village that has unexpectedly grown up to life-size overnight, or the opening credits of Midsomer Murders.
Each blade of grass is mowed to the regulation 2.5 cm on what must a daily schedule, while every one of the regimented hedges is trimmed to conformity with similar frequency. Luxuriant flower beds and hanging baskets bloom in vivid profusion. Picture-postcard cottages are freshly painted, and thatched roofs kept scrupulously clean and tightened every other Thursday. Litter is an alien concept, the pristine streets unsullied by so much as a solitary Gauloise stub. Even the litter bins glisten proudly; cleaned, polished and disinfected on what must be an at least daily schedule. In the unlikely event of graffiti rearing its ugly head it'll be gone before the acrylic has set.
Maintaining all this would be a full-time job for an army of gardeners, painters, thatchers, roadsweepers, sanitation logistics operatives, community service conscripts, and general odd-job men, but you never see anyone actually doing it.
In fact, you never see anyone at all.
When does all this work get done? Do they all sneak out at three in the morning wearing night vision goggles and pushing stealth wheelbarrows full of rubber mallets and soundproofed shovels?
Where is everybody? Where are they all hiding?
It's not as if there aren't that many of the buggers. According to the most recent census, France has a population of a whisker over 65 million, making it the third most populous country in Europe, although how the authorities managed to count a whole countryful of congenitally unco-operative, invisible Frenchmen without the assistance of miners' helmets, helicopter-mounted, infra-red body scanners and a tracking chip implanted surreptitiously in every newborn during the general post-partum
chaos is beyond me(3)
. There are probably half that number again squirreled away in the dark recesses of abandoned outside privies, peering hungrily through the gaps in roughly boarded windows like posters for The Hills Have Eyes
Maybe it's population density, I thought. France is a sod of a big country. Perhaps they're just spread out more.
Not really. France has a population density of 114 people per kilometre squared. This makes it the ninth most populous in Europe which, if the world were fair and God were a socialist, would give each and every one of them their very own 8500 m2, or one and a quarter football pitch's worth of La Belle France
in which they could put on yellow vests, play interminable games of petanque, pontificate on abstruse philosophical concepts, and protest violently to their hearts' content. OK, this is spacious compared with your average Dutchman, who has to make do with just the penalty boxes to stick his finger in dykes, supply the world with tulips and practice his clog-dancing, but it's not anywhere near enough to explain the strange phenomenon of rural France looking like the recent recipient of a stray neutron bomb.
" I hear you exclaim smugly. "It's urbanisation and age demographic separation. The young up sticks and gravitate to the bright lights and fleshpots of the cities, leaving the countryside to slide into gentle geriatric decline. It appears deserted because its entire population is stuck indoors waiting for a bilateral hip replacement, while those brave and lucky few who do manage to limp to a window or doorway can't be seen because they're all dressed in black"
Good try, but wrong.
Eighty percent of the French live in urban areas, which makes them the tenth most urbanised in Europe. This puts them on a par with the UK and Spain, both of which have very unfrench cultural attitudes to the use and maintenance of the private and the public realms, and it is here, I suspect, that the solution to the conundrum lies.
The French, especially the rural French, view personal space from a completely different perspective than do most other western cultures. They are as socially dependent as any other group of humans, but they express that deep psychological need very differently from us Brits. As for our transatlantic cousins, if they think we Brits are a bunch of po-faced, formal, reserved, class-ridden snotbags, they should try striking up a conversation with a bunch of condescending French Jacques Derrida wannabees. In contrast to the immediate and unsolicited soul-baring and embarrassingly detailed personal and medical details we have come to expect from our American friends,
the French are a very formal, rule-bound and ritual-dependent lot. Take, for example, the famed French politesse
. WASP cultures frequently comment on French greeting frequency, asserting that the average Frenchman can't pass within fifty metres of a piece of street furniture without wishing it a bon jour
and that this somehow epitomises their exquisite good manners. This is based on a misunderstanding. When a Frenchman says 'Bonjour'
, he is not expressing a heartfelt wish that your day be a brim-full 24-hour extravaganza of untrammelled joy (that would be bonne journée
try it - you'll get a completely different reaction). Rather, he is initiating a ritual, the purpose of which is to avoid any intimacy or significant social interaction:
M. 1"Bonjour, M'sieu-Dame."
Translation: "I acknowledge your existence, Sir & Madam.
Please rest assured that I have no intention to beat you to the ground, steal your rather tasteful watch, or abduct and ravish your, equally tasteful, good lady wife. More to the point, I have no inclination whatsoever to have the effrontery to attempt to engage you in conversation."
M. 2: "Bonjour, M'sieu."
Translation: "I, in turn, acknowledge your existence, Sir, and appreciate your restraint in the matters of unsolicited conversation, theft, bodily violence, ravishment and other social faux pas."
Mme 2: "Bonjour, M'sieu."
Translation: "I reiterate my husband's acknowledgement of your existence, Sir, and echo his appreciation of your restraint in the aforementioned matters."
M. 1 Nods, briefly.
I have completed my role in the ritual, now please go away and leave me in peace".
M. 2: Returns the nod.
"Agreed. Moi aussi".
Mme 2 Smiles and returns the nod, while slowly lowering her eyelashes.
"Tell me more about this ravishment business."
Both parties are now free to go about their business untroubled by the mortifying prospect of gauche, stilted and ultimately doomed attempts at initiating even the most basic level of human social intercourse.
How magnificently efficient! All that negotiation and enforcement of cultural norms in seven words and less than five seconds. No wonder that the French can effortlessly display an uncanny ability to make exquisite good manners and punctilious politeness deeply insulting and humiliating.
This epitomises the factors in the French psyche that lead inexorably to the desolate emptiness of Darkest Rural France. The French don't socialise with strangers. Or acquaintances for that matter. Even those on the cusp of friendship are kept at a metaphorical arm's-length. No, the French socialise solely with very close friends and with family.
And they do it at home.
Behind closed doors and shuttered windows
Not in pubs like the Brits do, or in the street like the Italians, or everywhere, like the Spanish.
If, by happenstance, you do come across a Frenchman (or woman) in the street, (s)he is either protesting about the price of diesel, making their way to a friend's or relative's house for dinner, or buying the ingredients for the eight-course, twenty-two cover soirée they're throwing in three and a half hours' time.
The problem of the enigma of Darkest Rural France is solved(4)
, without recourse to superstition, wild coincidence or Boris Karloff
Unless, of course, my original assessment was right, and rural France really is the last bastion of pre-rationalist paganism and the fallback redoubt of displaced vampires, werewolves, Satanists, zombies, cannibals and the like.
We'd have noticed.
Whoops - got to go - there appears to be a posse of deformed peasants on the pontoon, waving fiery torches and shouting " Brûler les sorcières ", "Perfide Albion",
and "Vive la Brexit!
Must change the ensign.
And - the inevitable footnotes:
(1) And we'll have no sarky remarks about the terms 'human' & 'French' being mutually exclusive.
(2) I concede that there is probably some overlap between the two sets.
(3) For God's sake keep that idea away from any conspiracy theory nutjobs.
(4) Preferably to be spoken aloud in a heavy Clouseau accent. Someone needs to come up with a font called Clouseaunics OTT.