Our dear friend and neighbour Claude Ory was 69 years old on 31st May. He had invited us to attend a barbecue at his house in celebration and we were sorry for him that recently the weather has taken a turn for the worse. This weekend we had  a huge thunderstorm, reported to be over much of Europe extending as far east as Russia. We were lucky that we didn’t find ourselves directly beneath a thunder cloud on Saturday but in the late afternoon we were surrounded by them. Sunday the weather didn’t improve and in fact we had heavy rainfall and the wind began to rise, coming from the north. The rain stopped on Monday and it was fine but windy, Tuesday and Wednesday the rain came back but not so heavily. We wondered how the barbecue would pan out in the dismal end of spring.

We arrived at 7pm and some hardy Frenchmen were playing boule on M Ory’s terrain. We went inside and greeted Claude and gave him his card and present. We saw a barbecue under the cover of one of his out buildings but it didn’t seem to be at cooking heat yet. Inside his house two long tables had been put end to end and places laid for 16 people. At about 7.10 the boules brigade came in to the house and we greeted everyone not learning all their names and realising that no one, except us, spoke English and that the only people we knew were Claude and Monique and Mme Prudhomme, who we had met a couple of weeks earlier.

Claude began to sit us down around the table. I sat opposite Monique and Julie sat opposite Claude, an honoured position in the middle of the table. Claude is such a considerate man, he knew we wouldn’t know anyone else. There were plates of crispy snacks and cubes of cheese on the table and when he had finished organising the seating Claude told us all to eat. We did and so did he, but only after he had circled the table with a bottle of aperitif for the drinkers and fizzy fruit drink for the teetotallers like me. Nothing was at all hurried. He sat down again and ate some more nibbles, before disappearing out of a side door into his yard. His friend Vivianne followed a few moments later. I later asked Vivianne if she had known Claude a long time and she said since they were at school together in the very room in which we were sitting, Claude had bought the school he had attended as a boy and now lived here. They had lived on neighbouring farms when they were children, about 1 kilometre from school.

Time had not yet become totally irrelevant and whilst Claude was absent there was much chatter during which I learnt that we had in fact been lucky with the weather. Some poor people along the Loire valley had been flooded out of their homes. After a while Vivianne reappeared at the door carrying plates of half cantaloupe melons with parma ham. Everyone was served with a plate, either by Claude or Vivianne and then Claude began his second circumnavigation of the table this time with wine for glasses and some other alcoholic concoction which he poured into the melon. I suspect the melon liquor was illicit French alcohol because he poured it from an aged bottle which had candle wax on it. It didn’t seem to matter whether his guests protested the amount the Claude poured into each half melon, everyone seemed to get more than they really wanted, and those unfortunate enough to be temporarily absent from the table returned to find their helping filled to the brim. Thankfully though Claude respected my abstinence and we set to eating our entrees.

The tables end to end must have been 14 feet long, but when two people arrived who had been doubtful attendees, another table was found to make room for them and we were now 18 at dinner on a 16 foot long table. It didn’t stop them calling from one end to the other talking to each other, I understood some of what was going on, partly by understanding the words but more so by gestures and laughter. There is a universal language innate in all of us I think. Claude opened a very large bottle of red wine and circled the table again, Julie and I were offered Festillante, a sparkling, alcohol free drink. Everyone was finding his hospitality charming and entertaining. He has a habit of uttering a “houp” every now and then, and people began to imitate him and giggle.

Claude uttered a “houp” as he went to the oven and took out an enormous dish of sausages. We all giggled, and so did Claude, before he began yet another tour of the table asking what type of sausage we would like, volaile or porc. I had learned how we were to cope with a barbecue in inclement weather. The food had been cooked and was being kept warm in the oven. Crisps were the, to us, unnatural accompaniment to sausages, but it was tasty. It wasn’t going to be the only unfamiliar experience of the evening.

Time had by now become totally irrelevant and Claude disappeared again to return, who knows how long later, with ice cream in chilled glasses for the next course. Counting had also become irrelevant because there weren’t enough. So more glasses were taken from the cupboards and some people suffered the indignity of ice cream in an unchilled glass. I was getting the hang of things by now. I wasn’t perturbed by the thought that our meal might consist of some melon, a sausage and some ice cream dessert. French country social life is nothing if not relaxed. So Julie and I relaxed chatting with our fellows and observing the evening. After a while Vivianne began clearing the glasses and a few of us pitched in to help. Once we were seated again Claude went back to the oven and took out another huge dish, this time filled with pork steaks. He repeated his tour of the table selecting appropriate pieces of meat to suit the guest, refusing to give the small steaks some ladies asked for. With an accompaniment of crisps we set to eating again.

And so it continued, entertaining small talk, learning about our new friends, being invited to play petanque with the neighbourhood star player, meeting near neighbours and organising visits. Claude was a great host and brought out a huge bottle of champagne too, of course he served everyone again. Eventually he brought out a bottle of Napoleon, mandarin brandy, and a very large patisserie cake as the finale to the meal.

His cake was adorned with writing, Joyeux Anniversaire, and two candles and the number 69. Marguerite egged Julie on to change the numbers round to say Claude was 96 and eventually that happened. Claude seemed a bit tipsy by this point in the evening but he took it all in his stride. His good nature and cheerfulness shine through all the time. When I had said I liked petanque (boules) it sparked the interest of Yves, the local star, and he said to Claude across the table “you can bring him to my house and I’ll show him how to play”. Claude replied “have you invited Edward yet?”. Duly Yves looked at me and said “vous êtes invités chez moi…” then he looked back at Claude and said we can play a foursome to which Claude replied “have you invited me yet?”. You can’t help but like M Ory.

The party enjoyed cake, champagne, Napoleon and at about midnight the meal came to an end. A couple of people left and perhaps Julie and I thought we might too. But it wasn’t to be, Claude brought out two packs of cards and invited Marguerite to join us to make a foursome at the game of 17. Another foursome began a game of bulotte. Various people were not playing but observed and chatted. It was thoroughly enjoyable but tiring. At 1.30 am we said our goodbyes having passed a very traditional rural evening celebration in northern France. We both felt lucky to have been invited and to have seen what could be disappearing. Who knows if such celebrations will continue for much longer in a changing world? For example part way through the evening Claude turned on his radiogram and put on a vinyl record. There was nothing retro or smart about it. Claude played records on his radiogram as his usual way of listening to music. And of course it was French accordion music.