Thursday, 9 May 2002
Have you experienced that feeling, on waking up, of a general sense of well-being, all’s well with the world and God is in His Heaven, when suddenly, a wave of horror sweeps over you, turning your bowels to water as you begin to recall, slowly, dimly and with mounting apprehension, the vague events of the previous evening?
Last night, my hosts here in Condom, Leo and Annie, introduced me to their good friends and neighbours, Nicky and Michael and I was invited to join them all for a traditional Condomoise meal in the nearby town.
I was mildly surprised to see it was in a restaurant called the Pearl of Asia which turned out to be the same as every other Chinese restaurant anywhere in the world but only this time in French.
The meal was adequate, the wine flowed and the conversations were both interesting and humorous. I had a jolly good time.
So did everyone else.
The place was packed. The table next to us had two young men in advanced state of decline. The one with the bleached Mohican was so exhausted by whatever he had been up to prior to eating that he could barely lift his head off the table. He had managed to get his chopsticks out of the little paper bag but had not progressed so far as to snapping them apart. He was using them in conjunction with a spoon gripped fiercely in his other fist to scrape rice off his plate into his mouth. In between mouthfuls he stared blankly but in a sort of mournful way at our group.
Service was so slow we were the last to finish and having split the bill, we got up to leave. I had taken on the role of Kitty Master sorting out the change for the bill. We drove back laughing at the antics of our fellow diners and said our goodbyes as Michael and Nicky drove off. Leo and I were having a night-cap when I put my hand in my pocket and pulled out the bill and a fistful of Euros. The phone rang. It was Michael. The owner of the Pearl of Asia had tracked him down and was after his money back. Who had done a runner with the bill? Feeling suddenly quite sick, I phoned the restaurant and in my best French apologised and promised to come in the next day and sort it all out. Thus my first few happy moments this morning have now clouded over as I prepare to face the wrath of a cleaver-wielding French Triad chef. Alcoholic remorse. Doesn’t last.
It’s pouring with rain and I am not sure if this is Day 8 or Day 9. It is Ascension Day today, a public holiday. Yesterday was my first day off and was spent in a sort of haze. It was also a public holiday, this time to celebrate the end of the Second World War and Leo and I had popped into Condom for a cleansing ale at lunchtime.
We had woken with somewhat of a thirst following Tuesday night’s supper party that Annie had prepared to celebrate my arrival. They say that one bottle’s not enough, two is too many but three is just right. What they say about four, five or six I don’t know.
Leo insisted I try just this one more little number from the depths of his cellar. We had started on a lethal local aperitif made from Armagnac called Pousse Rapière which translates as sword thrust, an apt description of the effect on the gullet. Then he treated me to a smashing Bordeaux, Ch Cadillac Lesgourgues ’98 in honour of the Beast. Got a bit vague after that but a bracing walk through the winding little streets of Condom the next day cleared my head.
The whole town is en fete and tents and stalls and bandstands are springing up all over the place for this weekend’s festivities. The traditional costumes on display look very similar to those worn on the other side of the Pyrenees during their fiestas. Beginning to feel close to home.
The drive from Perigueaux to Condom was the prettiest stretch so far. The winding road ran through heavily wooded rolling countryside with fields full of ducks, walnut trees, cows and geese, interspersed with vines and plum orchards. So different to the vast wheat, mustard rape and maize fields further north.
By winding I mean hairpin bends and steep hills which the Beast handled with ease. Others had not been so lucky. There is a macabre local custom of erecting a grim, black silhouette of a man at the spot where someone has died, so that ‘accident black spot’ has real meaning. The more fatalities, the more figures standing mournfully beside the road. My record so far is three.
In South Africa, a similar warning by painting slippery white crosses on the road had the effect of creating a skid pan on dangerous bends where, say, a bus loaded with people had slid off the road, thus increasing rather than decreasing the hazard.
I stopped in Villeneuve for lunch. Mistake. Spent half an hour looking for the restaurant recommended by Michelin only to find it closed on Tuesdays. Wandered about until I came across what looked promising only to be told curtly by the patron at 1:45 that he was closing. They sit down to lunch at 12:00 sharp round here. Ended up with a ham sandwich and a glass of beer.
Leo’s instructions were simple. Drive down ever-narrowing country lanes south of Condom until the road peters out. The broken-down little hovel being painstakingly restored would be Dauzan, my home for the night.
I swept down this broad gravel drive past green open parkland surrounded by magnificent cedars and oaks and came upon an imposing manor house built in yellow stone with an unusual slate roof. Beside the swimming pool was a newly constructed garage with a fleet of Andorran registered cars inside, confirmation that this was, indeed Chateau Page.
My ‘rabbit-hutch’ is immense, beautifully decorated with an equally large bathroom attached, the first rooms on the top floor to have been restored. Annie had completed the decorating only the previous day so I was the first occupant. The new dormer window allowed sunlight to fill the room and the brass bed Leo had picked up in a brocante for pennies looked as comfortable as it later proved to be.
I’m off to repay the French Triad then have lunch in Auch. Leo has promised me wobbly liver.