Sunday, 10 May 2009

Flâneries - Au temps perdu

Technology is the madeleine that has just taken me back in time to February 28th 1967. The location - a boîte called La Cave in Thonon-les-Bains, Haute Savoie, on the French side of Lac Léman. The occasion - my twenty-first birthday party. One of my friends there, Daniel, worked for RTF (Radio-Télévision Française) at the time and brought along a ciné camera. We only ever viewed the few minutes of footage once, a group of us at his flat behind the Lycée de Jeunes Filles where I spent the school year as assistante d'anglais, and he missed the big drama of the evening. Dwynwen, one of my oldest friends from school and university, set fire to her heavily lacquered hair as she bent forward to light her gauloise at a candle. I must have been standing next to her because I managed to beat out the blaze with my bare hands before she even noticed the flames and saved most of her coiffure. I hadn't seen the film since, though I'd kept the reel in a drawer with old photos that never made it into scrapbooks. But thanks to Snappy Snaps, I've had it transferred to DVD, no unaffordable specialist film service required, just the local chainstore. I've edited it and added a soundtrack - 'les tubes' that month were "Heard it on the Grapevine", Marvin Gaye; "Whiter Shade of Pale", Procol Harem; and "Let's Spend the Night Together", Stones. No Johnny Hallyday, Françoise Hardy or Sylvie Vartan. The nightclubs played all UK and US hits, unlike a few summers before when French artists always topped the charts. Weird to see old friends that I've lost contact with - Helga, the German assistante, Martine, Belette (Anne-Marie), Annie and Colette (in sunglasses in the candle-lit gloom of the cellar), all 'pionnes' and all also students at Grenoble University just a year before the '68 strikes; Jenny and Pattie, assistantes too and both studying French at Cardiff with me; Doreen; Dwynen invisible; Nicole, still in regular contact, being the good hostess she is and handing round the birthday cake; forgotten boyfriends - Sylvain, Daniel, Jacky. A packet of Gitanes; a French 45 rpm turntable with no speakers; sixties dances; me camera shy even then; black bob and fringe, dangly turquoise clip-on earrings and a dusky rose-coloured corduroy trouser suit from Geneva. Trouser suits were cutting edge fashion at the time, revolutionary even in France: just the previous summer during our stay in Paris, Dwy and I had got tickets to see a Molière play we were studying at the prestigious Comédie Française, but were only allowed entry if accompanied by a guard of two uniformed theatre attendants, who stood oustide the door of our box during the intervals to make sure we were not on public view. Our crime? I was wearing a white, bell-bottomed trouser suit with gold braid edging on the jacket hem! The fact that it was home made by me from rather synthetic fabric purchased at a bargain price from Llanelly market probably had nothing to do with it ... Compared with student grants, I was loaded that year - a salary, free accommodation and food; just a few hours' conversation classes a week when I played pop songs and translated and tried to explain the lyrics - if I could ('a whiter shade of pale', 'we skipped the light fandango', 'Eleanor Rigby, keeping her face in a jar by the door', 'crying like a banana in the sun' in French?); snow in abundance; alpine sunsets over the lake; pastis and dice games in an all night café with the eccentric, aged patronne, Zinette; and a major shopping experience just half an hour's hitched ride away. La vie en rose.

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