We lived in France for a while – at least for part of the time. While there we tried to integrate. We shouldn't expect the locals to change to suit us, it's up to us to fit in with them. To slip seamlessly into another culture is not easy. We can gesture and shout as much as we like but learning the native language is the first step to achieving entente cordiale. Even a grasp of the basics demonstrates a willingness to integrate. Learn numbers, greetings or a few simple phrases like, 'could you tell me what time the baker opens?' or 'what are you looking at?'
It's not easy. For example, in English we have wait and weight. Words pronounced the same but with differing meanings. Similarly with French, citron is lemon, Citroen is a motor car. They sound similar but asking for a fillet of sole with a family saloon car can leave you feeling a little self-conscious.
So, we can now communicate. The next step is to meld flawlessly, yet enthusiastically, into their culture. We do this by attending events and joining in. A Vide Grenier (literally 'empty attic') is basically a car boot sale, or garage sale. Back home in England you can buy, for a very reasonable price, your neighbour's power tools that went missing in a recent robbery. In France there is a whole other world of unrecognizable stuff. Wooden hand-tools, tin-plate advertising signs, enamel piss-pots – you name it, it's available – for a price, which is often not very much. There is no better way to please a native than to buy something from them. If you walk away without parting with any money and they realize you are foreign, you'd better beware because you might have a set of vintage tea-spoons thrown at you.
Another French institution is Loto. You see them advertised regularly in towns and villages up and down the country. Loto is basically bingo. It's massively popular and taken very seriously. So.........
Tingling with anticipation we arrived at the Salle Polyvalente (room of many uses) in St. Jean de Losne for an evening of 'Loto'.
Why? Mmm, you might well ask. Well, funds were being raised for 'Lions International', a fabulous organisation that helps and funds projects both locally and Internationally. One of our number is a 'facilitator' and we were supporting her. In St. Jean de Losne the Lions fund a local telephone help-line. It is a service, manned by volunteers, which supports both the expat community and visitors in times of trouble. Not if your boat engine needs a new alternator, rather for people with personal or psychological difficulties. For example, when a partner dies or becomes ill, a foreign land can be a confusing and frightening place. It's a great service and the volunteers lend a confidential and compassionate ear – for some people it has literally been a life-line.
So that's why - now how? This is more difficult.
The entrance hall looks a bit like the reception area of a 'mostly abandoned' hospital - but cleaner. We were faced initially with a substantial heap of blue 'Bingo' cards on a large table. It was obvious what they were but not how they integrated into the French Loto format. We were a dozen or so Expats, foreign nationals, call us what you will. What we were was confused and bewildered. We discussed the format with 'Three Wise Men' on the registration table and learned very little.
Ok, now concentrate. All in Euros, you could buy one Loto card for 6 Euros, two for 11, three for 16 and so on. In addition there were much bigger cards that incorporated 6 cards on a single card – these were yellow and cost 25 euros (or was it 30?). If you bought a big yellow one you got a blue one free. Then there were 'Bingo' cards (as opposed to Loto cards, though they looked the same). These were much smaller like a folding 'calling' card, also yellow, and incorporated a miniature Loto card and a secret tear-off strip that revealed 3 hidden numbers. I'm not sure any of us actually figured out what these were for – except as a way of raising an extra few Euros for the Lions. The wise men explained in complicated words of too many syllables at lightening speed how things were done (not that we were any the wiser). Imagine an English person trying to explain cricket to a French person when neither speaks the other's language and you'll get the idea.
We shuffled towards the main arena - having parted with an average of 20 Euros per couple for a mystery tour of French Loto. There are situations where a minimal command of the language is helpful. Some of us struggle with our native tongue, so these increasingly fraught foreign exchanges were taxing in the extreme as the Tower of Bable slowly crumbled. We had our payment receipt and various cards stamped by another official at the main door to the hall. We were now officially recognised as official players. Exhausted, we repaired to a table to recuperate.
There was a 'snack-bar' in the corner offering filled baguettes, french fries, crepes and other delicacies including bottled beer and beverages (not that anyone of sane mind drinks tea here). We (all English save for a lone Antipodean) had been advised to bring along our own snacks and drinks. Consequently our table soon looked like the buffet at a down-market English wedding – a right old mish-mash of goodies ranging from paté sandwiches to Maltesers and a variety of liquid refreshment. In total there was seating for perhaps 200 people at 18 long tables which were mostly full. We foreigners nibbled and imbibed and, a little unsure of how things were to proceed, looked like an outing from an establishment for the culturally challenged.
Nearly an hour later excitement reached fever pitch as the PA system spluttered into life. Unfortunately it sounded like the lady announcer was sitting underwater inside a garden shed some distance away and, notwithstanding the language difficulties, it was almost impossible to understand the rules. Perhaps if you're brought up with it there's no problem, but it appeared that the regulations had been mauled by three or four layers of French bureaucracy before arriving at our table. At one point most eyes in the room turned to us so I can only presume that the lady announcer had just warned the natives to steer clear of our table. Perhaps she'd glimpsed the picnic.
So, apprehensive but refreshed, off we went. The Lady Announcer (I capitalize to emphasise her importance) sat behind a storm of air-blown balls which hurtled manically around inside a glass case. Imperious behind a raised dias, she looked like a judge with half-moon glasses and fierce hair-do. She was accompanied by her Loto Recorder who ensured fair play. She was less regal, but unsettling nevertheless, she too had an air of power and menace. Before beginning in earnest the announcer called out a series of letters. If these corresponded to one printed on the reverse of any of your cards, you were awarded another card – just to add to the blizzard of papers we already had. None of which we were really sure what to do with.
Then our problems really began - she called out the first number. Three or four of us had rudimentary French so we had to help out the less fluent. Down our end of the table (I sat on the end suspecting that, at some stage, I would have to dash out and calm down) I whispered the numbers to my wife next door, who in turn passed on the information to her neighbours, both of whom are a bit hard of hearing. Having deaf people in the middle of a whispering snake is a bad idea. Most of the information got through unscathed but it was a bit of a Chinese whispers situation and at times there was some confusion. It really became shambolic when my wife 'pre-guessed' the translation incorrectly so the wrong number was passed on. This meant a hastily-whispered correction, by which time the next number had been called, and the whole house of cards gradually collapsed. Our carefully designed system disintegrated and we'd have to wait for the next game.
You keep the same cards for the duration of the evening and rather than crossing the numbers off with a pen, like you do playing with Aunty Marion at Christmas, you cover each, correctly called number with a transparent tiddlywink (which we also had to purchase). The tiddlywinks are light so you have to be careful not to sneeze or you carefully crafted game-card could be scattered before the wind. One lady nudged her big yellow card with her bosom shunting the tiddlywinks onto the wrong numbers so she had to abandon that game. Another (male this time) lost track of the translations (and mis-translations) and got in such a muddle he swept all his tiddlywinks off his card and sat in a huff with his arms folded across his chest for the remainder of that game.
Each 'Game' had three segments, the first of which had competitors trying to complete one line on any of their cards. The numbers are checked by a man with a roving microphone who, if he judges the tiddlywinks to cover the right numbers, tips the wink to the official recorder and the winner is awarded a pork chop. In the second segment two lines must be completed and in the third segment, all three (a full house). Numbers are checked after each segment by roving-mic-man and various pieces of meat are awarded. The size of animal piece increases with each segment so a Full House winner could expect at least a haunch.
We had a collective insecure moment regarding what to shout out if one of us completed a segment. 'House', or 'Housey Housey' is shouted in the UK – but yelling 'Maison' would have sounded like we were taking the piss – and we'd probably have been drummed out. No, what you actually shout is 'Oui' (yes). Not that it bothered any of us - I was rather suspicious that none of the called numbers actually appeared on any of our cards. None of us won a single thing all evening and we probably had 30 or 40 cards between us. Actually we would have won twice had it not been for a couple of administrative cock-ups. On the first occasion one of our contingent (male but nameless) had two lines up - but thought he was going for a full house. Consequently he didn't say anything and was furious to miss out on a black pudding. Secondly a lady (who was completing a card for someone else I believe) got a full house. Sadly, while passing the card to her friend – thereby allowing the card owner to grab the glory, the tiddlywinks came off and she was given a bemused shake of the head by roving-mic-man when he came to check. Needless to say we were all in a fit of giggles. Thereafter the fight seemed to go out of us as concentration waned and our final opportunity had gone.
Actually, I'm being a bit disparaging about the prizes. It wasn't all hunks of meat. There were food processors, vacuum cleaners, vouchers for local shops etc. etc. - so in fact it was worth concentrating. There were some 'professional' players there who travel from town to town playing various Lotos and win regularly, selling their prizes on Ebay or Le bon Coin (literally the good corner), the French equivalent. It's possibly not surprising that we amateurs wandered home empty-handed.
The first 'Game' (3 segments, one line, two lines and full house) took about 12 minutes – and it turned out there were 18 games! The snack-bar had run dry and some of us were near comatose by the time midnight arrived and we were released. Two of us needed to call the emergency telephone number for guidance but overall another four hours of a long winter had passed in confusion and harmony. In the final analysis we have helped the Lions and, despite being poorer and prizeless, we can hold up our heads with pride.
Huh, pride, lions, see what I did there. Though I'm forced to admit it was an accident rather than witty engineering.