Making friends a painful process
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.