The other day I complimented the French on lagging slightly behind the British on the road to cultural perdition. But perhaps they aren’t as far behind as all that.
On 10 August we always go out to lunch because that day marks a sort of special occasion (made less special every year, if you ask me). Our area is really the back of beyond, so the choice of restaurants is limited.
But France being France, the four places within easy reach of us are all good. One in particular is our default restaurant for 10 August. We’ve had excellent meals there several years running, of the kind that would cost twice as much in London.
That’s where we booked. However, when we looked at the menu, we had to check to make sure we were at the same place. Gone was the scrumptious, inventive fare we knew so well. The few things on offer were basic stuff, the sort of food I could whip up at home in 15 minutes. I like steak frites as much as the next man, but that’s hardly a treat for a special occasion, is it?
When we asked what was going on, the waitress explained they couldn’t keep up their standards because of staff shortages. Considering that most of the locals subsist on benefits, one would have thought there would be no such shortages, but that’s a subject for another day.
Anyway, we walked out, and I did a Lewis Hamilton trying to get to another restaurant we knew before it stopped serving.
Alas, since last year that formerly nice place has been turned into a tapas bar with youthful proletarian music blaring as loud as the speakers allow, which is way too loud for our eardrums. Being neither youthful nor proletarian, we rang two other places, only to find out that they were closed on that day due to, well, staff shortages.
We drove home, where my claim of being able to cook such meals within 15 minutes was put to a test. However, Penelope isn’t the type to accept defeat. The next day she insisted we extend the special occasion and still go out.
Since our gastronomic expectations had been lowered, we went for the atmosphere, and a local restaurant set up in a converted mill is hard to beat. Its terrace overlooks a picturesque weir, surrounded by trees and flower beds. Good for the soul, that, even if the tastebuds are less happy.
The restaurant is popular with our friends, and we always bump into some of them when we go there. Yet on this occasion we recognised neither the customers nor the proprietors.
None of our fellow diners were what Penelope describes as PLUs (People Like Us). Oh well, vive la différence and all that. We aren’t snobs, are we? And even if we are, we shouldn’t be put off by the prospect of having one meal in the company of, to quote Penelope again, the salt of the earth. (I don’t think she uses the expression the way Jesus used it.)
Fair enough. Except that some of the salt of the earth, and all our waitresses, were heavily tattooed. Ankles, arms, wrists, necks, behind the ear – and that’s just the places I could see, leaving my imagination running wild.
Now, that presented a problem, one that had nothing to do with social awareness. You see, I physically can’t look at tattooed flesh, even if shaped as nicely as our waitress’s ankle. The revulsion is purely instinctive, not something I could successfully submit to forensic scrutiny.
One young tattooed woman was obese, square yards of bluish rumpled flesh spilling out of her XXXL tank top and short skirt. That gave her a lot of epidermal canvas to paint on, and she hadn’t wasted the opportunity.
The young lady was directly in my line of vision, slightly ahead of me and to the left. If I looked at Penelope across the table, the corner of my left eye had to feast on the body art, turning me off my food.
Searching for visual relief, I turned my torso slightly to the right, losing sight of the fat girl but still staying in visual contact with the left side of Penelope’s face. Alas, that wasn’t the only visual contact.
Now I could see a middle-aged couple to my right. They were holding hands, a nice romantic gesture so rare in our unromantic times. I would have been deeply moved, except that the man’s muscular forearm had a tattooed ring around it, about three inches wide.
To make eating at all possible, I let my eyes slide above the tattoo, all the way to the chap’s angular face topped by a buzzcut. That optical movement didn’t work out as well as expected, because I realised that the chap wasn’t a chap at all. He, or rather she (or whatever French pronouns she was using) was a woman. The romantic couple were lesbians, and they didn’t care who knew it.
I shared that discovery with Penelope, and at first she didn’t believe me. Finally, she squinted to her left discreetly, performed her own examination and wondered what the world was coming to.
Our quiet rural area has become unrecognisable in the 20-odd years that we’ve been spending half our time here. The ubiquitous tattoos, for example, are a distinctly recent phenomenon.
The local urban centre, Auxerre, is one of the loveliest medieval towns I know. When we first got to know it, it didn’t have a single tattoo parlour. Now it boasts half a dozen and, by the looks of it, their business is thriving.
The demographics of Auxerre, one of the five provincial capitals of Burgundy, have also changed visibly, in the direction of most commendable diversity. As a result, our fishmonger had to flee the area, leaving us at a loose piscatorial end.
His young wife could no longer walk through the city centre in the evening without being pinched, felt up or lewdly propositioned. And his children were taught at school that they ought to be ashamed of being white.
The man didn’t leave a forwarding address, so I don’t know where he went. I hope he’ll find the peace he’s looking for, but somehow I doubt it.
An observation I’ve made everywhere I’ve ever lived clearly holds true for this corner of Burgundy as well. When cultural deterioration starts, it has an accelerator built in. It’s like a snowball rolling down the hill faster and faster, and getting bigger and bigger until it falls off the edge and shatters to pieces in the abyss below.
The edge hasn’t quite been reached yet, not here anyway. But as Her Majesty’s subject, I’m proud to see how British culture makes inroads in France. All the Auxerre tattooing and piercing parlours have their signs in English.