Mak­ing friends a painful process

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel - Mau­reen Cash­man

ACOU­PLE of years ago I went with my dog to live in a lit­tle vil­lage in south­west France. I rented an apart­ment in the re­stored wing of an an­cient pri­ory. We ar­rived in the mid­dle of win­ter and the vil­lage seemed de­serted, ex­cept for the smoke coil­ing from the chim­neys of the houses that were sealed off from the out­side world by wooden shut­ters on win­dows and doors.

The vil­lage had no shops and the near­est town was 26km away. At first I was very lonely, so when one of my neigh­bours, Jeannine, sug­gested I go with her to a gym class at Assier, a larger vil­lage about 20km from ours, I agreed read­ily.

On the morn­ing of the gym class, as ar­ranged, I waited for her in the vil­lage square. At last her car shot up the lane into the square. As I got into the pas­sen­ger seat, she let out the clutch abruptly and launched into an ex­pla­na­tion of why she was so late.

She took a short cut up a nar­row, steep, wind­ing road, sound­ing the horn on the cor­ners, which she took at coura­geous speed.

In no time we had skid­ded to a halt in the mar­ket square where the room in which the gym classes were held was sit­u­ated.

De­spite her en­er­getic driv­ing, it turned out that Jeannine had ten­donitis in her arms. In fact, most of the peo­ple in the gym ses­sion were af­flicted in one way or an­other. Some couldn’t do things with their legs, some with their arms or other parts of their body. Mar­i­lynne, the in­struc­tor, led by ex­am­ple, swing­ing her hips and kick­ing her feet to the samba mu­sic from her cas­sette player, while ev­ery­one else shuf­fled around in a conga line be­hind her.

The fi­nal part of the ses­sion was a writ­ten me­mory test of a se­ries of ac­tions Mar­i­lynne dic­tated and ev­ery­one per­formed as well as their bod­ies (and, in my case, lin­guis­tic pro­fi­ciency and abil­ity to im­i­tate what ev­ery­one else was do­ing) per­mit­ted.

‘‘ Start­ing with the left foot, the per­son takes five steps for­ward,’’ she in­structed. ‘‘ The per­son turns in a cir­cle to the right, at the same time mak­ing a wind­mill with the hands. The per­son tilts the head to­wards the left shoul­der. The per­son leans for­ward and crosses the hands over the knees. The per­son takes five paces back­wards start­ing with the right foot.’’

By that time, this par­tic­u­lar per­son had bumped into a chair, on which she sat and at­tempted to re­mem­ber and write down all the French words for, and the se­quence of, all the ac­tions she had just per­formed.

Then Mar­i­lynne cir­cled the room and looked at the pa­pers and gave ev­ery­one a mark out of 26. Some peo­ple tried to wring a few more marks out of her on tech­ni­cal­i­ties. Pas­moi. Mar­i­lynne’s face was in­scrutable as she glanced at my pa­per. I didn’t get an ac­tual mark.

On the way back to our vil­lage, as we sped around the blind cor­ners and Jeannine gave a run­ning com­men­tary on fea­tures of the land­scape that passed in a blur, I re­mem­bered how many vis­i­tors I was ex­pect­ing in the com­ing months. It would be a shame, I said to Jeannine, to join the gym class when I would have to miss so many ses­sions.

Jeannine looked dis­ap­pointed. But, she said, there was an­other group who met reg­u­larly for walks around our vil­lage and the neigh­bour­ing ones, which I could join when­ever it suited me, and my dog could come, too. I said that we both loved walk­ing and would en­joy that very much.

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