Friday, 10 February 2012

The ceremony

The weather for my next meeting with the mayor was somewhat different. The first occasion had been a gloriously warm, late spring evening; the next was to be a cold November morning with a biting north-east wind, although at least it would not be raining.

Mrs S and I were at the restaurant when Jean-Paul asked if we would be at the ceremony the following day. "What ceremony?" we asked, having completely forgotten that the following day would be 11th November, a public holiday in France when they commemorate Armistice Day. Jean-Paul explained, and we promised to be in the village square at nine the following morning when the ceremony was due to start. Even if we were to be only part-time villagers we wanted to be accepted by the locals. And we felt somebody should represent the Union Jack.

At one minute to nine the next morning, Mrs S and I shivered round the corner into the village square to find it completely empty. There was not a soul in sight and the only sound was the wind rattling the branches of the chestnut trees. As we huddled into the meagre shelter provided by the church porch I checked my watch to make sure I had remembered to change it to French time and that we had not arrived an hour late, only to miss the ceremony. Despite the wind we decided to wait and a few minutes later a car drew up on the opposite side of the square. Three men in a uniform of some sort extracted drums from the boot and disappeared inside the mairie. After a gap of another three or four minutes a second car arrived and two more uniformed men entered the mairie. It had begun to look as though something would perhaps happen at some indeterminate time in the future. But if that time were to be too far into the future, Mrs S and I would either have departed whence we came or we would have been turned into low-level gargoyles in the church porch.

Jean-Paul opened his front door, glanced quickly round the square, and shut the door again. Another car drew up and a youngish lady got out, crossed the square and stood a few yards from us. Neither Mrs S nor I saw him approach, but suddenly Jean-Paul was in front of us. He introduced the youngish lady as a reporter on the local newspaper and disappeared as suddenly as he had arrived. The three of us waited.

Eventually, the door of the mairie was opened and a gaggle of people more or less fell out to mill around on the path. It seemed to us that they were trying to decide how to form up as a procession, but there was something of a tussle going on between three or four people who each wanted to lead. The order of precedence was finally established and the drum major took his place at the head, with his band behind him. The band consisted of the three drummers we had seen earlier and two buglers. After the band came the mayor, then the village council, a selection of adults and, bringing up the rear, the village schoolchildren. The drum major lowered his mace and the band started a solemn slow march. It would probably have sounded more impressive if the drummers had some sense of rhythm and if the two buglers had each been playing the same tune. Or perhaps they were, but they had just started at different places in the score.

The procession made its way down the path of the mairie, into the square and round to the war memorial, a total distance of some thirty or forty yards, where they formed up with the band to one side and the mayor in the middle. The ceremony began with a speech from the mayor, none of which I could understand. He then proceeded to read out the names on the war memorial. After each name had been read out there was a pause, then a sepulchrally morbid voice announced, "Died for France". (It actually sounds better in French: "Mort pour la France".) Fortunately, there are only fourteen names on the memorial. And that was it. Or rather, that was the end of the beginning. The really important part was to follow: the reception in the restaurant.