Less warm tea and sympathy, more chilled wine and cheer

4th August 1995 at 01:00
Lesley Jeffries resolved to give up school fetes but melted in the warmth of French hospitality. My friend Pascale is head of the primary school in the village next to ours. This village, like ours, is famous for its wine and for its ancient cellars or caves, said to have been built by the Knights Templar 800 years ago. The tradition of wine-making in the region goes back long before the templars and beneath some of the caves are even older ones cut deep into the rock.

I first met Pascale in a cave at a friend's birthday celebrations. We had been invited for apero. Sometimes this can mean a glass or two of wine and a few crisps but much, much more often, it means a long evening dedicated to drinking and eating. After all, this is Burgundy.

The caves are often the largest rooms available for entertaining and in winter almost certainly the warmest. So down the dark steps we went to be faced with long trestle tables and a sea of upturned faces. I pushed and squeezed past, shaking hands with strangers and kissing the people I already knew. You kiss four times in our corner of Burgundy so my progress was slow as everyone in the room must be acknowledged. a glass was thrust into my hand as I sank to a seat.

What on earth were these dear people going to talk about to this middle-aged English woman? I was rescued by my neighbour who began at once to ask questions. The French love to ask questions and it wasn't long before we had established common ground. I had only recently retired as primary adviser in rural Somerset and Pascale was, at that time, head of the cole Maternelle within a large elementary school in the nearby cathedral town. It's true teachers nearly always talk shop - even when one has sworn to give up the education drug forever and is struggling in a foreign language.

Pascale's responsibility was at that time for the youngest children aged three (and sometimes two) to six. Within a few days of our meeting I had received an invitation to her school's kermesse. A kermesse is very like an English school summer fete and when I was head of a small rural school I had promised myself that I would never get involved in fund-raising fetes again.

It was raining as we parked our car. Parents were putting the finishing touches to their cake stalls, the tombola, the lucky dip and the toy stalls which included all those handmade outfits for Barbie dolls carefully pinned to cards. Children were milling about and a loudspeaker fitfully drowned all other noise with jolly but crackling music. What were we to do?

We didn't want to bother Pascale whom we could see in the distance dashing about pinning children into their costumes ready for the spectacle due to start at three. We drifted from stall to stall and bought cakes and entered various competitions. In a curious way, and although I knew the whole thing meant hard work to the point of exhaustion, I missed the involvement.

Just when we were beginning to feel we had wandered enough, we were pounced upon by Jacques. He is Pascale's husband and very proud of his wife and her work, so round we went again visiting all the stalls, this time introduced as honoured guests. Then Jacques led us firmly to a large refreshment stall in the middle of the playground just as the trays were being prepared with refreshments for the helpers. No cups of dark brown lukewarm tea or sweet orange squash here - no, these helpers had a choice between chilled Chablis or the local red. I could well imagine that one or two school fetes in my past might have been really refreshed with such delicious wines.

I told Jacques I thought it might well be illegal to sell wines at school fetes in England and he shrugged and said he thought it was probably illegal in France too!

So with glasses in our hands we gathered to watch the spectacle. The theme was Europe. We pressed ourselves to the edge of the crowd of parents, grand-parents and well-wishers and watched as each class performed a dance from the different countries of the European Community. By now the loudspeaker system had broken down and was being mended by a group of gesticulating dads. Pascale tried to make the announcements through a loud hailer but her words were tossed and blown in the wind and the rain. We could see and hear very little.

That evening we sat down with about 100 parents, friends and teachers to a wonderful meal provided by the local police from their kitchens. The wines flowed and we met so many teachers and parents eager to talk to us with pride about their school and their wonderful teacher Pascale.

We left at midnight as the tables were pushed back and the dancing began. We had been asked again and again "What are you doing here in Burgundy?" What indeed? Since then I have visited many schools and made many friends involved in education. I have discovered something very profound - schools and the people who work in them and for them are just the same in France as in England, only different.

Lesley Jeffries is a former primary teacher and primary adviser in Somerset.

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