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Jo'Burg Days: A Bistrot Kind Of New Year

Barbara Durlacher muses on the man who might have made a difference to New Year celebrations in a French bistrot.

The clever French have introduced a new idea to the hamlets of Provence. This is the ‘bistrot,’ a cross between a bistro and a café, and it’s designed to give tourists an opportunity to get to know the area better, with the assurance of a good meal and a drink, and it’s bringing business and life back to these dying villages.

Warm and crowded in winter, with chairs and tables on the terrace in summer, bistrots are full of character and exude Gallic charm; apart from the absence of beer pulls on the counter and the mementoes behind the bar they resemble the British pub in their warm friendliness. This one boasted a large collection of horse racing trophies; the patron modestly admitted to being an owner.

At major festivals they provide a dinner venue, ambitiously serving four and five course meals, wines included. This was New Year’s Eve and the village was en fête. Spruce and mistletoe wreaths decorated the square, webs of tiny lights hung from the trees; cars were parked anywhere.

The party of six arrived late. Snow and ice on the roads made driving slow and treacherous. Made up of two married couples, a teenage brother and sister, and two mothers-in-law it was not a stimulating group. A difficult mix of three generations it contrasted sharply with the adjoining table of noisy Frenchmen which inched its way across the room, filled to overflowing with festive diners. The patron was having difficulty squeezing through the crush to serve the wine and food.

Conversation was sparse, the table of six had little in common and the noise from the French group made light chatter almost impossible. Trying to introduce a subject of interest the mother-in-law remarked on a photograph of a confident, middle-aged man in a Panama hat. “Don’t you think he looks a lot like your first husband?” she asked the beautiful blonde wife. “Yes, a little,” the blonde replied carelessly. “Absolutely typical’ she thought, ‘tactless as ever, trust her to always say the wrong thing at the wrong time.”

Then, compounding her social gaffe, next time the patron paused at their table she asked, “Who’s the man in the photograph?”

“The Mayor,” he replied, scooping up the dirty plates and serving the next course, then moving on to pour wine for the adjoining table.

Slowly the dull and noisy evening drew to a close. The room was too small for music and dancing and, despite its richness and heaviness, the food was unappetising. Conversation was difficult and the noise from the other table prevented any exchange of pleasantries. As soon as midnight struck, after the kisses and handshakes, the older members thankfully piled into their cars and fled home.

Some time later, the mother-in-law was chatting with friends about French films. Lying on a vacant chair was a Panama hat. It reminded her of the photograph of the man in the Bistrot. “That hat reminds me of New Year’s Eve,” she said idly, then told the group about the incident.

“The French have such a different way of looking at life, don’t they?” she continued, describing some scenes from French movies she had seen years ago. “I remember the father wore a Panama hat in those, and the sun was always shining.”

“Yes; marvellous films,” Peter replied. They were called La Gloire de mon Père and Le Château de ma Mère. The different French approach was very marked there.”

“They made such an impression on me when I saw them in 1990 when they were first issued,” continued Margaret.

“They were from stories by Marcel Pagnol. Did you know he also wrote Jean de Florette and Manon de la Source?'' rejoined Peter. “All his works have become classics. He had a wonderful understanding of the Provençal way of life. The Director, Yves Robert, really understood what Pagnol was trying to say and the films were brilliantly made.”

“Yes, that’s right, I remember them too,” John rejoined. “The films are famous and Pagnol’s name is revered in France as one of their great writers. The books were based on his childhood and family in Provence. He was born in Aubagne, not far from Marseilles and he excelled in recording events, and writing about people, especially his father, from a boy's eye view.”

A day or two later, Margaret was paging through the books she’d bought at Marseilles airport, when she saw a photograph of the famous author and film director Marcel Pagnol. To her amazement it was the man in the photograph on the wall in the Bistrot; once Mayor of that tiny village and now famous for his re-creation of the lives of his parents in the years of the belle èpoque.

How different the evening would have been if he’d been one of the Frenchmen at the opposite table, and he would have turned the evening into one of gaiety and fun if he’d been present at the New Year’s dinner.


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