February 11 Shrove Tuesday
WE CAME ON THE WIND OF THE CARNIVAL. A WARM WIND for February, laden
With the hot greasy scents of frying pancakes and sausages and powdery-sweet waffles cooked on
The hotplate right there by the roadside, with the confetti sleeting down collars and cuffs and rolling
In the gutters like an idiot antidote to winter. There is a febrile excitement in the crowds which line
The narrow main street, necks craning to catch sight of the crepe-covered char with its trailing ribbons and paper rosettes. Anouk watches, eyes wide, a yellow balloon in one hand and a toy trumpet in the other, from between a shopping-basket and a sad brown dog. We have seen carnivals before, she and I; a procession of, two hundred and fifty of the decorated chars in Paris last Mardi
Gras, a hundred and eighty in New York, two dozen marching bands in Vienna, clowns on stilts, the
Grosses Tetes with their lolling papier-mâché heads, drum majorettes with batons spinning and sparkling. But at six the world retains a special lustre. A wooden cart, hastily decorated with gilt
And crepe and scenes from fairy tales. A dragon’s head on a shield, Rapunzel in a woollen wig, a
Mermaid with a Cellophane tail, a gingerbread house all icing and gilded cardboard, a witch in the
Doorway, waggling extravagant green fingernails at a group of silent children…At six it is possible
To perceive subtleties which a year later are already out of reach. Behind the papier-mâché, the icing, the plastic, she can still see the real witch, the real magic. She looks up at me, her eyes, which
Are the blue-green of the Earth seen from a great height, shining.
`Are we staying? Are we staying here?’
I have to remind her to speak French.
`But are we? Are we?’She clings to my sleeve. Her hair is a candyfloss tangle in the wind.
I consider. It’s
as good a place as any. Lansquenet-sous-Tannes, two hundred souls at most, no
More than a blip on the fast road between Toulouse and Bordeaux. Blink once and it’s gone. One
Main street, a double row of dun coloured half-timbered houses leaning secretively together, a few
Laterals running parallel like the tines of a bent fork. A church, aggressively whitewashed, in a square of little shops. Farms scattered across the watchful land. Orchards, vineyards, strips of earth
Enclosed and regimented according to the strict apartheid of – country farming: here apples, there
Kiwis, melons, endives beneath their black plastic shells, vines looking blighted and dead in the thin
February sun but awaiting triumphant resurrection by March…Behind that, the Tannes, small
Tributary of the Garonne, fingers its way across the marshy pasture.
And the people? They look much like all others we have known; a little pale perhaps in the
Unaccustomed sunlight, a little drab. Headscarves and berets are the colour of the hair beneath, brown, black or grey. Faces are lined like last summer’s apples, eyes pushed into wrinkled flesh like marbles into old dough. A few children, flying colours of red and lime-green and yellow, seem like
A different race. As the char advances ponderously along the street behind the old tractor which pulls it, a large woman with a square, unhappy face clutches a tartan coat about her shoulders and
Shouts something in the half-comprehensible local dialect; on the wagon a squat Santa Claus, out-of-season amongst the fairies and sirens and goblins, hurls sweets at the crowd with barely restrained aggression.