With exactly one week to go before Extracting Goats from Jean-Claude’s Kitchen is published, I’d love to share a further extract with you. In this passage, I warn against the dangerous combination of high spirits, hot weather and an abundance of wine when attending a French Chateau wedding, and why it is a poor decision to pretend to be French at such an event…
‘Extracting Goats from Jean-Claude’s Kitchen’, from Chapter 16 – ‘I am the Music Man, I Come From Far Away…’
The biggest enemy of the château wedding is the lethal combination of high spirits, champagne and hot weather. I must avoid being a moral judge here because I love a wedding and, if I am fortunate enough to be invited as a guest, I’m partial to a glass or two of the bubbly stuff. I will never, ever though, be discourteous to a member of staff or fellow guest. If I make a fool of anyone, it will be myself when I fall off a chair or the like.
Some venues rather invite trouble as they identify the ‘Summer French Wedding in the Sunshine’ market as a potentially-lucrative one which can easily be tapped into. Generally speaking, these events require a serious financial outlay, but there are venues who run more of a budget package – supplying gite accommodation or placing ‘glamping’ facilities amongst the trees in the grounds. They will also strike deals with local wine producers ensuring no-one will go thirsty. Whereas the classier châteaux will advertise rooms which have been slept in by 17th-century French aristocracy and a feast produced by Michelin-starred chefs, others will promise enough Prosecco to sink a ship, and an abundance of barbequed foodstuffs at an affordable price.
Venues which are simply holiday complexes rather than châteaux also get in on the act. The results are stressful and painful for the venue and forgettable for the participants, not because they endure a mediocre weekend but because they suffer memory loss due to the effects of drinking industrial quantities of budget rosé.
As I pull up at a venue to play for a wedding, I can, within minutes, discern what kind of experience the afternoon promises, and react accordingly. Having arrived at one particular engagement, for example, I was ambling across the lawns of a historic château close to Bertric Burée when my eye caught the sight of around fifteen lads wearing only England football shorts, kicking a ball around, using 300-year-old oak trees as goal-posts. They had lagers-in-hands and the air was blue with alcohol-induced expletives.
Bearing in mind this was a couple of hours before the ceremony, I politely said my ‘Hellos’ and found a corner well out of the way to set up. One has to be careful with a choice of repertoire at such events as, if I play anything remotely ‘pop’, it risks generating raucous applause and the dreaded ‘requests’. I’m up for doing a few familiar tunes on the classical guitar as much as the next guy, but when I’m asked to play Jay-Z, well, I know my limits. Problems can arise when the invisible barrier between client and guitarist is broken; this can lead to a scene, despite my efforts to be courteous and light-hearted. I’ve experienced lager-fuelled Brits becoming aggressive because I am unable to perform the latest offering from Little Mix spontaneously for their little girl. Funnily-enough, being a hairy middle-aged white bloke, I tend to learn other material in my spare time.
The footie-wedding described above was particularly farcical and seemed to simmer with aggression all afternoon. Luckily for me, I was due to zip away at 6.00pm as it felt as if the event was going to ‘kick off’ in more ways than one. As mentioned, I communicate at length with my couples before their big day. This particular couple had chosen Pachelbel’s Canon in D for the processional (although the email read Canon’s Pachelbel in D) – a pleasant if not trailblazing choice – and, two hours prior to their ceremony, were yet to select a piece for the recessional. In the end, I promised a stressed groom I would bash out ‘something good’ for them, leaving him to quaff Stella Artois number seven before making his vows.
The ceremony itself passed off well enough.
The congregation talked throughout, seemingly unaware that the weekend’s Strictly results were of lesser
importance than a couple vowing to give their lives to one another. During the aperitifs, I found a little corner and settled
into playing my repertoire to some pleasant folks sitting on recliners in the
shade of the building.
The father-of-the-bride was walking in peculiar zig-zag shapes having knocked back enough bubbly to flatten a herd of elephants. He had learned some French for his weekend away in the Dordogne, which was admirable, and was keen to try it on anyone unfortunate enough to be cornered. I was halfway through a bit of Tarrega when he stumbled over, sat next to me and, resembling Officer Crabtree from Allo Allo, attempted a bit of the lingo.
“Bonjourno guitarist. Comment allez vous today?” asked Mr Dad-of-Bride.
“Très bien merci,” I replied unthinkingly, concentrating on my job.
“Comment tu-t’appellez vous your name innit?” he ventured further.
“Dan,” was my ground-breaking reply.
“Je suis English. Anglais-like,” offered Mr Dad-of-Bride.
‘No s**t Sherlock.’ I thought. “D’accord, c’est trés interessant,” I said.
Of course, I was digging myself a very big hole and one which I was going to struggle to climb out of. The good gentleman, beaming all over his face at the marriage of his daughter and perhaps due to the lavish imbibing of cheap bubbly, believed that I was French. To make matters worse I appeared to understand him. Call me stupid (you wouldn’t be the first) but I didn’t have the heart to reveal my Welsh origins, because I felt it would burst his bubble (and his body contained enough champagne bubbles to make quite a pop, I tell you). He seemed so proud of his efforts.
Thus commenced a surreal series of encounters during which he would periodically approach me to try out new phrases, in between mingling amongst guests proudly proclaiming he could communicate with the locals. By divine intervention, he failed to approach anyone who had chatted with me in English beforehand. He sported a little English/French phrase book and, having ‘mastered’ a new phrase, would meander over to try it out on me.
“J’aime le football. Man United. Man City sont les Nancy-Boys,” he offered profoundly.
“Ha ha! C’est trés drole Monsieur,” I said, this being the necessary response.
“He understood me!” he announced to one-and-all with worrying vigour.
I cringed, praying no-one within earshot would reveal my Anglophone identity.
During one particularly arduous exchange, he was trying to tell me how beautiful the Lake District was. He felt a good way to illustrate this would be to introduce mime into the linguistic equation. To illustrate ‘lake’ he repeatedly drew a circular shape in the air with his hands, about six inches from my face. To the uninitiated, this could have been anything from an egg to the solar system.
“Moi – je aime le Lake District,” he said for the eighteenth time.
“D’accord,” I replied, simultaneously fighting with Bach’s Prelude in G major.
Mr Dad-of-Bride then called out to no-one in particular.
“I don’t think he understands me. Hey, Geoff! How do you say ‘lake’ in Froggie Lingo?”
‘It’s ‘etang’ I thought. ‘Please go away before I’m busted’.
He then used the uniquely British multilingual approach:
“Moi – je aime le Lake District!!!” he yelled as if attempting to communicate verbally with someone in the actual Lake District.
At this point, I made the suspiciously quantum leap from ‘understanding nothing’ to ‘all becoming as clear as day’, apparently via the means of volume and circular hand gestures.
“Aha! Ze Lake Deestreect, eet ees very… err… beau n’est-ce-pas?” I offered, unconsciously putting on a French accent.
Dad-of-Bride looked more astonished than anyone at this success and, had he been sober, probably would have had his suspicions aroused, but I seemed to dodge the bullet.
Extracting Goats from Jean-Claude’s Kitchen – and Other Essential Tips from Seven Years of Musical and Family Life in Rural France is available in print of digital formats from Kellan Publishing on January 27th.