Mr Bread and his immobile home

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The Independent Online

Numbers and friendliness in our Norman village (population 17) have been greatly reinforced by the arrival of M. and Mme Pain (Mr and Mrs Bread).

Numbers and friendliness in our Norman village (population 17) have been greatly reinforced by the arrival of M. and Mme Pain (Mr and Mrs Bread). Despite their "Happy Families" name, he is actually a retired postman in his late sixties; she is a smartly dressed, charming woman in her late fifties.

M. and Mme Pain live on the edge of the village in a caravan that was squashed by a falling chestnut tree in La Grande Têmpete (great gale) of December 1999. The caravan has been knocked, approximately, back into shape by its owner, our next-door neighbour Marcel, a retired farmer and the assistant mayor of the sprawling, hill-top commune to which our hamlet belongs.

Marcel never smiles except when, in his capacity as chairman of the commune's "festivities committee", he officiates at a fireworks display or sausage-grilling. Then he wears a straw cowboy hat and a concrete grin. We call him the Chairman of Fun.

For several years after La Grande Têmpete the caravan lay abandoned in a thistle patch, next to the shed where Marcel keeps Le Matador, his vintage combine-harvester. Once a year, when someone's wheat needs cutting cheaply, Marcel brings himself and Le Matador out of retirement. The Chairman of Fun becomes, for a couple of days in July, the Grim Reaper.

In another burst of energy last year, Marcel welded a metal patch over a hole in the back of the caravan and advertised it for rent, still marooned in the thistle patch.

Since they answered the advertisement and moved in, M. and Mme Pain have made several improvements. They have built a terrace out of canvas and old wooden pallets. M. Pain has turned the thistle patch into a vegetable garden, which threatens to be more successful than my own. They have created a spare room by parking a camper van permanently next to the caravan.

At first, the Pains came only for weekends, escaping from the hurly-burly of Ouistreham, a small ferry port with one traffic light, just north of Caen, 30 miles away. M. and Mme Pain own a flat there. Last winter, Mme Pain kept saying that they would "move back to the coast" when the weather grew cold. The weather never really grew cold and they never moved back.

M. Pain, to his wife's obvious distress, says he hopes to spend this winter in the caravan, whatever the weather. She calls him fondly "M. Pain" or " mon compagne" (my partner) or " mon ami" and occasionally " mon mari". "My friend loves living here," she sighed recently. "He doesn't want to leave. It is a very difficult situation, very special."

They are gentle, friendly and popular in the village, but they were, none the less, recently at the heart of a touching, town vs country disagreement.

M. Pain adores animals with a sentimental passion more common in Britain than among the French (although this is changing as the French, like the British, become overwhelmingly suburban and urban, rather than rural). He takes his dog for walks around the village four or five times a day. He has made friends with the fattening beef cattle who live in the fields all around, giving them names such as Cédric and Alain.

Dédé, the other retired farmer in the village - brother-in-law of the Chairman of Fun - keeps two dogs on chains. The older one, called Tarzan because of his haunting cry, is resigned to his fate. The other was an excitable, foxy-looking, young dog called Uline, beloved of my daughter Grace.

Uline recently broke her chain and assassinated one of Dédé's two mother Muscovy ducks. The young dog was locked in a stable and given a death sentence. Country people, real country people, have no time for animals who kill valuable animals.

For several days, M. Pain pleaded with Dédé for the young dog's life. Dédé refused and refused and finally relented. The sentence was commuted to life imprisonment, to be served tied up to the Pain caravan.

Uline has travelled the 300 metres to her new home but she is rarely tied up. M. Pain allows her to roam in the fields and forests. He insists that she has learnt her lesson: she will not go back for another Muscovy duck dinner. I foresee tragedy.

Why Bolly is such hot property

Reporting recently on the bumper harvest of champagne grapes this year, I spoke to the head of the great Bollinger champagne house, Ghislain de Montgolfier. He told me that the company sells so many bottles of Bollinger in Britain these days - more than in France - that his marketing department watches the London property market to chart likely sales flows.

I asked him, in passing, why he thought that champagne had escaped the slump in exports experienced by other French wines.

"Ah," he said. "Champagne is not just a wine. It is an occasion. If, for instance, you were out with your girlfriend, or even your wife, and you gave her a sparkling, New Zealand wine - and there are many fine sparkling New Zealand wines - you would not get past half-time. You would not get to the second half. You would certainly never get to the third half. If, on the other hand, you gave her champagne..."

Suiting himself

The fevered speculation about the hump on George W Bush's back during the first presidential debate in the United States misses the point surely. The President's suit - blamed by the White House for his strange shape - was made by a French tailor, Georges de Paris, for $11,000.

What, might one ask, is George Bush doing wearing a French-made suit while his cheerleaders on Fox News and right-wing talk-shows ex- hort Ordinary Americans to boycott all things French?

Maybe the presidential hump was a cunning plan to destroy the French $11,000-suit industry.