This post was first published in the Riviera Reporter as Provence diary.
Nearly eight years ago I was first introduced to the Mayor of our village. The meeting was an uncomfortable one. Even back then the Mayor had something of an aura. He was long serving, revered by all residents, known to be just, fair and, at least to some, approachable. As with all Provencal villages though, there were tensions to be dealt with, one of which was the continuing influx of foreigners.
Back then if I happened upon the Mayor in the street I tended to lower my head, treating him as if he were a minor member of the British Royal family. At the same time I tried to appear as unobtrusive as possible. Instinctively I even half-bowed as he passed. No doubt I was trying to behave like the ‘right type of foreigner’ but to the Mayor I must have appeared to have been suffering from stomach cramps or some sort of compulsive nervous twitch.
I called the strategy deferential disengagement. And it worked. In my first six months in the village the Mayor and I never exchanged a word. Then a French friend propelled me across the street right into the Mayor’s path. I would have liked to have had a speech prepared for the occasion, a few flowery and grammatically correct phrases to demonstrate how happy I was to have found such a wonderful place to live. Instead the Mayor practically tripped over me, and I mumbled a few words of apology in terrible French. Hands were not shaken and there was certainly not the hint of a kiss. I walked backwards away from him, eyes fixed to the ground so as not to cause any more offence.
Thankfully, since then, week on week, year on year our relationship has improved. I still bow my head instinctively as he passes, but until recently I’ve been treated to a broad smile, even an occasional handshake. With three children in the village school we have become part of his community. I believe he is, or rather was, proud of the way we’d integrated into the village.
I say ‘was’, because a few weeks ago there was a certain incident involving me and the Mayor..
Here’s how it happened. It was mid-week, the sun was shining, the air was full of the scents of the south and the sound of my neighbour hacking away in his garden. The lavender bushes were swelling with their first shoots of fresh growth and the virgin leaves of the plane trees already cast a dappled shade. As I surveyed the scene I experienced the sense of tremendous well-being, unique to the expat, that comes with knowing that he or she has made the right choice to live abroad.
A car crunched down our drive, stirring dust into the air, rolling slowly by my front gate, before creeping onwards towards my neighbour’s house. Minutes later the same car, a grey Twingo, returned at the same leisurely pace, came to a brief stop, and then disappeared up the drive. My neighbour called me urgently over. The driver of the Twingo he explained was a gypsy, surveying which house to burgle next. Only two weeks ago there had been a break-in up the road. ‘Be on your guard’ he said before returning to hacking the weeds.
Later the same day I was out visiting a local vineyard, sampling a rosé. The wine winked in the sun, and the feeling of blissful contentment briefly returned.
‘Jamie he’s back’ it was my wife on the phone.
She was taking our toddler for a sleep-inducing stroll, and had just seen the same grey Twingo turn down our drive again. Our neighbour was out, and both our houses vulnerable.
I sped back, filled with irrational anger against the man who was threatening my family. Moments before reaching home I spotted a grey Twingo parked by the side of the road. I didn’t think, I took the number and called the gendarmes.
Now, the gendarmerie has just been relocated to a shiny new building less than one kilometre away. Response times are pleasing rapid, which in normal circumstances is a bonus.
‘It belongs to a gypsy,’ I explained ‘he’s been up and down our road looking for houses to burgle.’
‘We’re on it, thanks for the number plate’
Back at home, wife, baby and house were all safe, but I experienced a creeping feel of disquiet – didn’t the Mayor also drive a grey Twingo and wouldn’t a convoy of gendarmes bristling with sidearms be heading his way right now?
These days when we pass in the street, I blush red, and once again bow obsequiously as if beset by stomach cramps, while wondering whether it is only the English who are taught as children to forgive and forget.