when we bought our holiday home in gagnac in 1990, the nearest telephone box was down at the port de gagnac. we had neither phone or television to begin with and certainly no internet connection. I had a very basic computer in my classroom but we were at the very beginning of understanding how it was going to develop and take over our lives. slowly we got more connected. lou had a mobile phone that he had to go out and wave around in the street outside to get a decent signal. we bought a television and a French canal package so we could watch the bbc world service and, for a short time, became addicted to a French quiz show called ‘fa si la chanter’, a gallic version of ‘name that tune’. by the time we retired here, fourteen years after discovering the village, the internet was a must have. we lost no time in getting the phoneline (we had finally put one in) upgraded to carry the internet too. meanwhile I discovered that the big building opposite the plumber in biars was not just a library and cinema but had a ‘cyberbase’ where we could use the computers with the first hour free as we lived here. this proved very useful then and later when we moved on to our retirement house from the ‘gite’ and had to wait for internet connection.
this building, the ‘centre social and culteral – robert doisneau’ was going to figure quite a lot in my life from then on although i was unaware of it at the time. after the cyberbase it was the cinema that caught my attention. every so often there would a ‘vo’ film, version originale ie in a language other than french and, often English. i soon became a member of a little band of regular face, not all expats, who faithfully turned out for the english language offerings. i noticed that ken loach seemed to be favoured and then discovered there was an earnest group dedicated to choosing films that appealed to them and asking for their showing. it does mean that for the French cinema goers the uk is a rather forsaken land as portrayed by our ken. ‘i, daniel blake’ caused several french friends to speak to me in sorrowing tones about the land of my birth!
soon after moving to gagnac I was abducted one night by a young neighbour who wouldn’t take no for an answer and who whisked me off to ‘geem’. I found myself part of a small group of local young mums who shared the driving and who helped improve my french slang as we sweated through our step classes. later, I took a daytime pilates class with the same gym prof and that was held in the small ballet studio tucked away on the first floor behind the cinema screen. here I met an older group of early retirees and the occasional brit.
wanting to improve my French, and thinking that reading books may be better than entirely relying on the sometimes purple prose of the local paper, led me a few years later to the french reading group run by the library. this group took itself very seriously. all the authors we read were acamedie francais members and i struggled to read them let alone discuss them with anything like fluency. some other foreign members dropped out but, pigheadedly, I stuck at it. after five years i decided enough was enough. i had found some french authors i enjoyed reading and took my leave of the group promising to continue reading french literature. and i have.
around 2011 i heard from a dutch friend that the library ran a homework club for the college kids (college being the equivalent of uk secondary school but finishing at 15 years old) and they needed an english speaker. i had regretted not being able to help out in primary school over here, problems with insurance etc so went along and offered myself. marine, the lovely, smiley girl who was organinsing the ‘clas’ as it is referred to welcomed me, if not with open arms but a stream of rapid french. she soon came to recognise my confused expression and does try hard to slow down for me. mind you, i have become a better listemer! so for several years now i have been part of the team of ‘benevoles’, volunteers, at the centre. every Christmas we are given an apero evening as a thank you and presented with two cinema tickets and a card made by the ‘jeunes’. at the end of the summer term we adjourn to a nearby ‘plan d’eau’, a lake in a country park, with our individual offerings of picnic food, ‘boissons’ courtesy of the centre. my offering is always sausage rolls, which rapidly get gobbled up.
alexia and marine cooling off in the plan d’eau. it was a very hot summer. marine now organises the primary school sessions and alexia organises us!
I have always been impressed with the range of activities the centre lays on for all age groups in the community which it announces via flyers and three monthly brochures. as well as the cyberbase, library and cinema, there is a toy library with regular games evenings for families. there are English classes for children once a week, cookery workshops, poetry sessions, arts and crafts and storytime for the toddlers, advice for parents. you name it, at some point it will be happening.
in the run up to the french lockdown it was a worrying time as it seemed sensible to avoid gatherings such as rock and gym but I felt guilty abandoning les jeunes. then the announcement was made that schools would be closing on 13th march and immediately my phone and inbox was full of messages cancelling everything! this was followed by the countrywide ‘confinement’ or lockdown, as we refer to it, on 17th march and everything went very quiet as we all adjusted to a new way of existing..
as lou was no longer popping out for the paper every day I began a subscription to the local paper to try and stay in touch. It was hard getting used to staying at home so I was very pleased when, after a week, i received a message from marine. the ‘jeunes’ who were now supposed to be working from home (a lot aren’t!) still might need some support with their homework. would i be interested in helping out? of course I would. as an oldie which puts me in an at-risk group it is hard to not be able to volunteer to help someone somewhere. so I said yes but, please, keep it simple as trying to do anything by skype or facetime would challenge my IT skills not just language ones. i was reassurd that it probably wouldn’t be a problem as only about eight families had asked for help. I didn’t hear anymore but the folk from the centre haven’t been inactive despite working from home. as i followed the local news in biars the centre began to be featured quite a lot. the writing group has put up some challenges for anyone interested in responding. if i had more confidence in my french writing acumen i might be tempted as the proffered subjects are interesting. then there was a reminder that the centre is there to help with working your way through french bureaucracy, a challenge for anyone. then there were links to facebook where the librarians dedicated to the younger children have been sharing ideas for activities and reading stories. origami anyone? accordion music?
a couple of days ago, i had another message from marine. a collaegue, alice, is usually in charge of the cookery workshops. ‘lots of people are cooking more during lockdown’, the message said, ‘do you have a recipe you could share to alice and thus to the community? maybe after all this is over we can have a get together with all our favourite foods?’ it is as my sister says, nothing happens in france without food and drink being involved, not even in this desperate times.
now, can i translate my sausage roll recipe into understandable french?