Have been in Britain since Monday and will probably stay until the end of next week. As usual, I'm struck by the stoic cheerfulness of the public in these hard and troubled times, as opposed to the dourness found at home. Not that the French are unaware of this: I read a very funny French book in the summer, a sort of spoof guide book describing the country, department by department. For the Gard, where we live, there was a map of the region and an arrow pointing to one small town: 'In 1956, someone smiled here.'
Of course, these are generalisations. I know plenty of funny and cheerful French people and as many Brits who are grumpy bastards, (myself, for example). In fact, in my adoptive country, there are quite a few things which are taken much less seriously than they would be in Britain.
Millie called me yesterday to say that someone we'd worked with for many years on village projects had died tragically young of some horrible degenerative illness. She went to the funeral and not for the first time, in Sauve at least, the ceremony was conducted in a way that would have raised eyebrows here.
The coffin was brightly hand-painted and was danced to the cemetery by volunteers; not the first time that this has happened in Sauve. Funerals, in our region at least, seem to be more up-beat affairs than you would find in Britain.
Weddings are the same. We once went to a wedding on a very hot summer's day in the centre of France. Our friends both work for France Inter, the equivalent of the BBC and therefore know a few actors. As the ceremony in the Mairie was getting underway, a heavily pregnant, repulsive-looking person in a wedding dress burst in. 'You've left me like this and you promised me.........' The groom's parents both went the colour of an aspirin. The 'bride' was of course a man in drag.
The same couple, pulled a similar stunt when bureaucracy forced us into matrimony. The ceremony in the Mairie de Sauve was interrupted as we heard a lot of screaming and shouting and our friends appeared, wearing rubber masks. One was disguised as the Queen and the other Margaret Thatcher. The atmosphere was that of a football match. For our wedding music, we chose 'Electricity,' by Captain Beefheart and our 'bridesmaids' were two very elegantly besuited gay friends. Nobody seemed to think that this was in any way abnormal.
We Brits love a laugh, or so we like to tell ourselves, but unlike the French, we also have a deeply maudlin side.The Monty Python colonel stereotype, who once seemed so hilarious, now seems positively refreshing, now that collective wailing and gnashing of teeth has become the default response to even the most trivial emotive issue. My theory is that this started with the events in the Alma Tunnel, Paris in 1997, (three days after we moved to Sauve), and was consolidated by 9/11, (twenty days before our wedding).
Not that either event was anything to do with us.
It seems, and one can only hope that the tide changes again soon, veering from stoicism to hysteria goes in cycles. At Nelson's funeral, in 1805, the streets of London were awash with tears. By the time of Wellington's death, less than fifty years later, the upper lips of the public lining the route were stiffer than very stiff things.
Moved, saddened, uplifted, no problem. These are responses to beauty, tragedy, art, literature etc.
A conspicuous outpouring of communal grief for things unrelated to one's personal experience?
Stop it immediately! Too silly!