A village market in Haute Provence. Locals kissing and chatting and bantering and complaining and wishing each other a good day. One enormous dog sniffing the rear of a very small dog. The dog owners looking on and laughing – ‘il n’est pas méchant,’ says the owner of the enormous dog. A café strewn with global flags in honour of the World Cup.
At the cheese stall I ask the woman in the queue beside me for some advice on the best local cheeses. True to stereotype she shrugs, barely looking at me, this unfamiliar overly friendly person who is clearly not French, but speaks French, asking her opinion about cheese.
Then, reconsidering, she tells me they are all good but it would be best to ask the fromagier. Of course, I will do that, thank you, I say, but as you are from le coin I thought you might have a favourite. Slowly she warms to me and the conversation filters down the queue and to the fromagier himself, whose ears prick up when he hears the word ‘l’Australie’.
My nationality unveiled, I’m offered sample after sample of cheeses to taste, including one infused with several spices. Very un-french I think, only to find out the fromagier has lived in Africa, hence his daring departure from the norm when it comes to cheese making. C’est pas pour tout le monde he says. It’s not for everyone.
Which brings my originally uncommunicative friend to life. Her children were born in Africa, in Burkina Faso, she lived there for a while but she’s back here now, seule, alone. My heart goes out to her. I can hear the catch in her voice when she speaks of her children.
I want to know more, but people want their cheese, we must move on. She declares that the spicy cheese, n’est pas mauvais and buys 250 grammes. Maybe it will bring back more African memories buried deep within.
It’s my turn. I make my choice. A 24-month aged comté, a brebis (ewe’s cheese) and a local one, moins fort than the comté according to its maker, but just as good. It turns out to be the best of the three.
I watch the woman who lived in Burkina Faso amble down the village street, basket over her arm, and ponder the power of l’Australie to incite conversation, to bring people together, if only briefly, at a village market in Provence. I felt it before I ever went there, before I ever dreamed I would live there, the power of the word alone, this pull southwards, this fascination with Antipodean life.
And now that I do live in Australia, everywhere I go in France it somehow weaves a magic no other country can conjure, extending the promise of distant possibilities and delights they will never savour, about which they can only dream and wonder. Ah, l’Australie the French say longingly, I nearly went there once… if I’d had a different wife I would have gone there… if only it wasn’t so far…
Vive l’Australie, says the cheese maker as I leave, laden with enough of his produce to feed Napoleon’s troops, and wend my way contentedly down the winding village street to my temporary Provençal home.
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