Saint Jean

Since dropping the subject at GCSE, my French is restricted to ordering cakes and saying what is in my school bag. So whenever my bilingual father tells me and my mum that a festival with the locals ‘will be fun’, we usually brace for the worst with our catchphrase: “let’s hope the food is good”.

We spent 10 days in the south of France on holiday with plans to bathe in the sun, read books, and eat copious amounts of bread and cheese. We’ve stayed in the same area for several years so know some of the locals, who invited us to celebrate with them in the festival for Saint Jean.

We knew very little about this particular festival and, after a quick conversation with a rare English-speaker, we discover that it is a summer festival where you light a bonfire to fend off the storms. There was some sort of legend of a priest coming to stop the revelry one year, only for a storm to arrive once he had done so. We so left, expecting to stand around, eat some food, listen to a french band play music, and watch as the countryside men of the town light a large pile of sticks on fire. We got much more than we bargained for.

On arrival, we found our way to the food stand which consists of chips and sausages, only to note that the stage area is on the other side of the field – the large pile of sticks, which will be our bonfire, is far closer to the small tent that is set up over a long table, and it is far larger than we expected. Still, we muse over why the staging is so far away as we receive a plastic cup of grapefruit rosé.

Our questions are answered, perhaps unintentionally, when the first singer takes the stage. ‘Singer’ is perhaps too kind of a word for the man, who was more like a tone-deaf drunkard in a karaoke bar. It sounds harsh, but trust me, my ears still hurt. We worried for a while that everyone else was enjoying it (we had a bad evening several years ago which consisted of poetry read over some random guitar plucking which the locals all adored), but everyone else winced as much as we did. There was some jeering, lots of painful glances, and awed laughter that someone so bad had somehow got a slot for the night.

Next up were five women, ranging in age from what looked like mid twenties to early forties, who decided that staging, microphones, and shoes weren’t for them, as they made their way right to the middle of the gathering. They looked like someone’s poor execution of a ‘boho chic’ look, or like they were part of a low budget movie where the costume designer had a poor knowledge of a stereotypical ‘gypsy’ look. They so began to sing, better than the man before but still slightly off key, trying to sing harmonies that might have worked if they had some more practice. Then again, it was hard to hear without any kind of microphone, standing in an open space.

It was sometime after the boho band but definitely before the fire was lit that clouds suddenly came and the rain started to come down. Perhaps if the fire had begun earlier, it would have warded off this particular storm, but we will never know.

Light rain soon became a steady downpour, which meant everyone gathered had to crowd together under the pre-mentioned tent which really wasn’t designed to withstand rain. Large pools would gather on top, so a couple of people would walk around pushing on the collected water with a wine bottle so that the roof didn’t cave in. We squashed together, trying to fight off the cold, whilst some people smoked and one woman handed round homemade pizza.

Finally three men went to light the fire, getting soaked in the process, and constantly having to double back to light their large ‘fire sticks’ as the rain kept putting them out. Somehow, the bonfire started to take life, but instead of warding off the storm the rain turned torrential and there was thunder and lightning.

I should probably also mention at this point that the weather during this week had been between 27 and 33 degrees, so everyone was in sandles, shorts and light t-shirts. This does not mix well with rain, cold, and mud.

Of course this didn’t truly stop the revelry, as shown by one man who looked to be in his seventies dancing around with a large, rainbow umbrella, singing the classic line “I’m singing in the rain, just singing in the rain, da da glorious feeling ba ba”. It seemed that was the extent of the English they knew, but everyone joined in.

With storms come wind, which blew the sparks and ashes from the bonfire towards us and the trees – so really it was very lucky that we had the rain, otherwise we would have had a forest fire as well.

At the end of the night, there was a mad dash to the car, although we still got drenched, and laughter all the way home. It was definitely the best way to experience such a fantastic summer storm.

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