This weekend just gone, Jeanne and I took a train and went to visit some very good friends in the south of France. God I’m so proud of that sentence. Aren’t I classy these days?
I first met Seth over two years ago, during the Gold Coast’s balmy Aussie winter. We picked blueberries and drank ungodly amounts of goon together in the bush for several months, during which time we met our now-girlfriends. After the blueberry farm Seth and I went our separate ways, reuniting months later in Tasmania to pick apples. Then we split up again: 16 months ago, when I headed to Bristol to find work with Jeanne, Seth flew with Blanche to France. In many ways, therefore, Seth – a clueless Englishman like me – is living a fast-forwarded version of the lifestyle I’ve now embarked on; that is, trying to communicate without appearing deranged.
After a picturesque and comfortable train ride – French trains have bars on them! Full bars! Entire carriages dedicated to being bars, where you can sit and drink as much as you like! – we arrived in Avignon. It’s a tiny little city near the south coast, with the oldest and handsomest part of the city ringed with a 14th century stone wall. The difference in architecture between Strasbourg and Avignon was enormous – like the difference between Oxford and, I dunno, Marrakesh. Where Strasbourg is packed with Germanic fairytale homes all crooked on dark wooden beams, Avignon’s streets are sandy and bright and ornate, dotted with olive trees and palms. I found it hard to believe we were still in the same country.
We dropped our bags at Seth and Blanche’s cute little place, and after a few swift reunion beers we headed out to a party across town. We’d been invited by Tristan – another veteran of the blueberry farm – to a flat warming at his girlfriend’s new place. Jeanne and Blanche cycled ahead of us; they’d wanted for us all to cycle together but I’d already had a skinful and have only ever ridden a bicycle sober. I got scared; I had visions of myself sailing blindly through a red-light and being bonneted over the city wall and into the Rhône by a horn-blasting Renault Picasso. Instead then, as the girls rattled away over the cobbles on their bikes, Seth and I mooched through the lamp-lit streets and caught up.
We bought beers for the road, and it was astonishing to see the confidence with which Seth was now handling himself – that is, the confidence of somebody who can walk into an off-license and buy two bottles of Heineken, rather than fluffing their vocab and leaving half an hour later with two turnips, a jar of olives and a waffle-maker. I’m still at the stage of French-speaking where my confidence is paper thin; all it takes is for somebody to furrow their brow at my accent and all those thousands of hours spent learning how to conjugate verbs are rendered useless. It doesn’t matter how bold my approach – I could smash open the door to a bar, Jeanne on my arm, my shirt unbuttoned to my navel, and bellow a hearty ‘Bonsoir tout le monde!’ – the second somebody cocks their head and says ‘Huh?’ I wilt like an office shrub.
It was odd seeing Seth chatting to the locals in French. The last time we spent any real time together was in Tasmania, and at that point neither of us spoke more than a few words of the language. I used to lie on the sofa in our cabin drinking wine and I’d hear him upstairs speaking into an app in his phone, practicing choice cuts of French like ‘The pig is in the house’, and ‘Where is my handbag?’
What was even weirder than seeing Seth speak French was seeing the locals respond to him. They didn’t look baffled and vaguely angry like they do when I attempt any form of contact; instead they laughed and chatted along. Watching such interactions made me feel like a child watching the moon landings on an old black and white television: gee whiz, that could be me one day. There’s a struggle ahead, that’s beyond all doubt, but if Seth has done it –a man who was once forcibly hurled out of a hippy ‘all-are-welcome’ friendship circle for being too much of an idiot – there’s hope for me yet.
We arrived at the party two beers and thirty minutes later to find a room of 10 or 12 people sitting in absolute silence. ‘Dan!’ cried a grinning, Leonidas-bearded Tristan as we entered. He strode across the stillness to embrace me. ‘It’s been a long time bro. So glad you’re here!’
I popped the cap off a beer and sat on the sofa with Seth and Blanche and Tristan and Jeanne, and everybody watched us, and nobody spoke.
‘Don’t worry,’ whispered Blanche, ‘it was silence when we arrived too.’
This information – essentially that the silence wasn’t due to a momentary lull in the conversation, but was in fact the Main Vibe of the evening – caused me to do the opposite of not worrying.
‘Welcome guys,’ said Tristan’s girlfriend, Jade, the host of the party. Her English was great. ‘We’re all about to play a game. To start, you have to close your eyes, okay? Then I’ll go through the rules.’
I did as instructed and closed my eyes. Then the rules were explained – very thoroughly, from what I could gather, although I understood not a word of it as the language had now switched to French. When was I allowed to open my eyes?! How would I know?!? Would I be sat, blind and mute (and for all intents and purposes deaf), for hours to come? As French voices chanted back and forth in the blackness, the room began to sway around me, and I realised I was far too drunk to keep my eyes shut for more than ten seconds without the room spinning. Withholding a snigger, I eased open my eyes and crept away into the kitchen, where I sat on the window ledge and pinched some tobacco.
Before the game had finished, Seth and Tristan – both, like me, too drunk to keep their eyes closed for long – joined me in the kitchen, eager to catch up after years apart. We laughed a lot discussing Toku Iwi and the blueberry farm, and all the mad characters we knew there and where in the world they are today. We talked about Minh, who’s now studying in Berlin, Ben, who’s in St Ives working as a lobster fisherman, Hattie, who’s in Canada planting trees, Diego, who’s working in Argentina, and Malcolm, who vanished without a trace.
It was a joy. When you return home from a long stint travelling, having seen so much, it’s frustrating to find that you can’t really talk about your experiences without sounding like a pretentious knob-end. If somebody back home is telling a funny story about, say, hiking, I can hardly chime in with ‘haha yeah, this one time in Nepal…’ without causing every eye in the room to roll. You have to wait for people to ask you questions about your time away – and they never really do.
Neither Seth nor myself have drunk much alcohol for a couple of months now – late twenties health kick and all that – however, it only seemed right, in honour of our reunion, to drink ourselves to hell and back. Within an hour we were reduced to giggling teenagers, unable to hold a conversation without cracking up. There’s a potent French spirit called Ricard – it tastes like aniseed – and as Tristan poured us endless glasses we grew noisier and noisier, even while in the next room the atmosphere remained about as jubilant as a funeral home foyer.
At 2am it seemed a good time to leave. Seth had work in the morning, and he had reached a level of inebriation specific to him only: nipple tweaking. This tends to occur after Seth has consumed ten or eleven beers, and consists of him creeping up on people (me) when they are mid-conversation, and giving their (my) nipples a good old pinch. Drunk Seth finds it incredibly funny, especially as when he does it I’ll usually be talking to a stranger about something serious like their sickly grandmother and I’ll have to grit my teeth to stifle my yowls of pain.
We made arses of ourselves one last time before heading out: standing side by side in the living room to bid the strange, silent assembly farewell, Seth waved goodbye while clutching a half-drunk bottle of Ricard. It flew from his hand with all the inevitability of a Brexit row at Christmas, soared through the air, crashed down, and splashed its contents all over the socked feet of several strangers. Jeanne, Blanche and Tristan clapped hands to their faces like the three wise monkeys, while Seth and I stood swaying in the centre of the room, smiling loosely.
‘Hey, that’s not too bad, ey?’ slurred Seth. ‘It didn’t smash!’
The room was mute and still, save for the curling of upper lips and the wringing-out of socks.
‘I think we’ve probably outstayed our welcome,’ I murmured – or tried to murmur, because you can’t really murmur in a silent room.
‘Goodnight everybody,’ said Seth and I in unison, backing out of the apartment. ‘It’s been a pleasure. Jeanne, Blanche we’ll see you back at the apartment. Everybody else – bonne nuit. Et, er… désolé.’
And with that, we backed out of the flat into the corridor in as dignified a manner as possible, biting our tongues to avoid saying anything else while the stares of the strangers bored into us. The second the door clicked closed behind us we erupted into giggles once more, and stumbled off into Avignon together, laughing all the way.