It's hard to jettison your grey socks

8th September 2000 at 01:00
IT seems a long time ago now, but the sense of shock, or frisson, as they say in the part of France where I took my holiday, was startling. There, in the middle of an historic, almost medieval, market town were the familiar initials FEFC on a brass plate outside a set of offices. For a moment I wondered whether our own dear FEFC, now historic and almost medieval itself, had decamped there from Coventry. But no. It was a branch of the Federation Europeenne de Fonctionnaires Civils.

It was not the only time when I failed to keep FE out of sight and mind. When you spend two weeks in western Provence, you don't bother to pack your grey suit, grey socks and selection of regrettable ties. But you still have a lot of baggage which is hard to jettison. There you are, on the terrace, bright morning sunshine warming the stone walls, waking the resident lizards, and softening the butter which you are about to spread on the bread you brought back, still hot, from the village, and you find yourself wondering who trains the bakers to make those wonderful pastries which are set out so beautifully in the shop window.

Later in the day, when the heat has silenced the birds, when you are waist deep in the sort of book you never have a chance to start at home, when the sky is so blue that it hurts to look at it, your eye is caught by a slight movement. Somebody is out in the fields, weeding round the vines. Before you can stop yourself, you are thinking: "Could the "V" in NVQ be made to stand for viticulture? Could we plant a row or two of merlot on our south-facing slope at the main site?"

Or you are moving slowly around the weekly market, taking place, as it has over the past few centuries, in the town's main square with its cool, vaulted side passages and central fountain.

All five senses are on full alert. There are the colours of the fruit and vegetable stalls, from purple aubergines to golden peaches, from green and glistening courgettes to the bright orange flesh of melons. The scents of rich, ripe local cheeses, the open sacks of fresh-gathered herbs, and everywhere the sweet and soporific wafts of the stalls piledhigh with lavender. Your palate is teased by the dozen kinds of olive offered to you for tasting, the small cubes of pate laid out for your approval, and the thimble-sized glasses of strong red wine brought from nearby caves. It is hard to stop yourself feeling the texture of the tablecloths and napkins in raucous Provencale yellows and blues, and squeezing the leaves of basil, mint and rosemary, all potted up ready to be taken to your holiday kitchen.

The market seethes with not only the nasal French spoken in the south, but with the accents of Paris, as well as German, Dutch and not a little English. And, dammit, you can't help yourself thinking that there is a cracking assignment here for business and leisure students about the place of street markets in the French economy.

As the fierce heat abates and slow movement becomes possible again, you might drag yourself out of the sun lounger for a spot of culture. An obvious place is the Pont du Gard, that extraordinary Roman aqueduct which carried fresh water from the low hills which are your skyline to the thirsty and dusty Roman citizens living in Nimes. The astonishing engineering achievement which channelled the water over a distance of 30 miles with a drop of only a couple of metres is material for an HND project. The aqueduct itself, its tapering arches a supreme match of function and beauty, would be an object lesson for design students.

The whole site has now been upgraded, with a landscaped approach which detracts not at all from the breathtaking suddenness of your first sighting. There are tasteful information bureaux, refreshment rooms and some discreet souvenir shops. Everything is accessible for the wheelchair-bound. A small notice informs you that the scheme of improvement has been funded by the European Union. So, that's what happened to the money which you were hoping to get for that modest little EU adult learning project back home.

Back home, the meaning of life has reverted to statistical returns, a looming inspection, erratic enrolments and wearing socks.

Michael Austin is principal of Accrington and Rossendale College

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