From sardines to sang froid

As gusts swirl, the mastheads clamour for attention, like the percussion section in a school orchestra.

Sundays in the provincial Pyrénées Orientales département are slow. While shuttered boulangeries and épiceries are lined with empty shelves, and traiteurs temporarily stop selling tubs packed with gelatinous goo, at least churches have a small throng that faithfully assemble outside.

Well, in a matter of weeks (we’ve all said it, read it and had to listen to others say it, in a now clichéd tone), ‘things have changed’. Beyond all recognition.

Venturing outside for the one sanctioned moment of outdoors shopping, caring duties or exercise is a risk, if nothing else, because “we’re not from around here“, and the few locals who are might curse us and tell us to fuck off. In the event, the only people you see – if you come across any at all – instinctively cross the street as soon as you come within eyeshot. We likewise cross the road.

Forget the triple or even quadruple kiss the French are known to fetishise as a form of greeting. Apparently the media here are debating whether this most Gallic of customs will survive, or whether a certain sang-froid will permanently embed itself in the culture.

Will the ‘new normal’ see French people not only abandon kisses on rosy cheeks, but in one fell swoop, forgo British handshakes as well, to settle on a more Nordic set of arrangements? Who knows, and frankly, there’s more important matters to be concerning ourselves with.

We walked under the high-arched bridge, anticipating a police patrol, but in this dozy corner of south-eastern France, even the police have a rest on Sundays. High to the left, lilac-coloured heather shivers in the Tramontana winds. A steep drop sees the wind crash into crags and coves below. Flint spears itself out of the flowering hills and I trip on a stony path – for a third time. I’d been looking at the fine harbour and the pink-walled church in the foreground, but these days I’m exceptionally clumsy. I broke a glass in the kitchen last night. I’m dyspraxic, but nerves are clearly a factor.

To one side of the pastel-coloured villas, the sun is settling into a new rhythm, the first official day of European summertime. No one’s even clear what the time is. I’m incredulous when the clock-tower strikes six. To the other side, sea gulls suspend flight, in battle against the wind. Port Vendres is on lockdown, so is all of France and for the last week at least, the whole world. I hear the flapping sound of a flag, but checking where the flag is, I realise that its my winter hood seeking the embrace of my head.

We’re high up and half a kilometre, possibly further than that, the sixteenth-century Fort Saint-Elme stands, almost mockingly, in observance of this twenty-first century plague. Carefully sticking to the path, Collioure’s famous lighthouse is a brownish-grey to the north. A Medusa’s head of plants, the charred grey of ash, step in unison to the local Catalunyan dance, the Sardana.

The port is empty except for the moored yachts and sailboats. As gusts swirl, the mastheads clamour for attention, like the percussion section in a school orchestra. One shrieks louder than the other, but elsewhere all I hear is the drumming of timpani.

The promenade remains soulless, though not in an way ugly. The promise of the summer season, with sardines and Collioure’s oiled anchovies, is enticing enough of a draw to allow us to dream. For now, all we see are boarded creperies. One has a sign that will go unfulfilled; borne of another age, almost:

“We will return on April 1st”

An early April Fool’s Joke.



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