Paul Healy’s Week


On holidays in France, our village was quintessentially French (which makes sense). It was very quiet, but we’re well accustomed to that by now. In the garden of the gîte we’d rented, the only sound punctuating the silence on lazy, sunny evenings was the rustling of birds that had made their homes in the chimneys of adjoining properties. A couple of times every night, two pigeons fought/played deep in the web of branches on one particularly majestic tree in our garden. They made quite a racket.

Not a lot happens in rural France. Some days, you wonder where the inhabitants are hiding out. But this was a beautiful village, with quaint cobblestone streets, picturesque, colourful buildings – the architecture stunning – and a charming square sprinkled with pretty, character-filled art galleries. At its heart, as ever in France, stood a majestic church. Every day, an old man sat in the narrow doorway of his tiny home, a kitten by his side, both of them watching the world go by. They didn’t appear to have a care in the world.

We had no big expectations about the ‘Nuit Blanche’ (White Night) which the local café had modestly advertised. I’d popped in the day before to book a table for five. The conversation was part-English, part-French. It wasn’t ideal that the restaurant manager spoke the English, while I spoke the French. But we worked it out.

Next evening, our hosts were setting up tables and bunting when we arrived. This would be a street party. In fact, the ‘centre-ville’ was closed to traffic (such as it is). They had a warm welcome for their Irish guests. By 8.30 pm, there were 40 or 50 locals there. A lady (on guitar) began entertaining us with a mix of popular French and English songs. Most guests wore some white, it being Nuit Blanche.

Earlier that day, we had noticed a lady – probably in her 60s – gracefully moving through the village on an electric scooter. She had bowed to us. Now she was our waitress. Earlier, her demeanour had reminded me of Nanny McPhee, of Disney movie renown – substitute scooter for walking stick – but we ‘christened’ her Daisy. Well, to ourselves. We quickly developed a great rapport with her. Another character we had noticed earlier in the week was an extremely pale-faced man who wore all black and looked like a hard-living rock star. He tended to glide from the shadows, appearing around corners, while being perfectly pleasant (if mysterious).

Up to 10 pm, it was a quiet gathering… guests chatting while enjoying pizzas, assorted meats on a platter, wine and some local beer. An inquisitive cat kept watch while strolling across a rooftop.

Then, all changed. The young couple running the café followed up the live music by setting up speakers which blasted out hits. Suddenly, guests sprung up from their tables and…began dancing on them. Entire groups took to the street and began performing dances in sequence. The police called, two officers parking up and approaching the cordoned off area. The café owners had a reassuring word with them, and they left. In contrast, the cat on the roof stayed.

As we savoured the transformed atmosphere, I asked ‘Daisy’ – our waitress – if she could bring us our food bill. “No problemo!” she exclaimed, with a dramatic twirl (yes, it’s more of a Spanish-English phrase). Ten minutes passed, without Daisy or the bill. Then we noticed her dancing energetically in the middle of a group of guests, while also drinking. Meanwhile, the landlady was leading the dance moves on a table.

We ordered another drink, for this was unmissable. Man In Black – he was oblivious to the ‘white’ theme of the night – continued to float from one group to another, mingling with fellow locals, sipping his drink.

The table in front of us suddenly erupted, the middle-aged patriarch-type figure belting out a rock song, mic in hand. A younger man lifted his girlfriend/partner into the air and spun her around, in apparent homage to the Patrick Swayze/Jennifer Grey scene in Dirty Dancing. They knocked over a bit of bunting, but in fairness presumably hadn’t rehearsed. In front of them, a woman fell off her chair but was quickly back in position.

By now, the young landlady had taken a break from dancing and was serving complimentary tequila to guests with a ladle (from a large container). Man in Black didn’t miss out.

When we went inside to pay the bill, the landlady almost cried with joy as she told us her friend – sitting at the lively table in front of us all night – had just announced she was expecting a baby.

With the party wrapping up, a two-minute walk had us home by 11.30 (late for France). By the time we called it a night, the pigeons in our garden were fast asleep. There wasn’t a sound in the village, except perhaps for a happy Daisy purring home on her scooter.