If you want to get up close and personal with the life of the population of rural France you must at least once in your life attend a Kermesse Paroissiale, a kind of parish fete, a function which is held once a year in order to raise funds for and support the local churches.
Today there are very few functioning churches in central France, although virtually every village has at least one such structure, many of them dating from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries when religious belief and observance were more widespread than they are today. These churches serve more as venues for concerts, when these are organized by the regional authority. This year, apparently as a result of the restructuring of the region’s government, with the merging of several regions into one unit in order to reduce managerial and administrative costs, the usual series of seven or eight concerts given in local churches in the summer is not being held, apparently due to lack of funds.
A friend who is an active member of her local church and the wider parish (which incorporates several dozen otherwise-empty churches) invited us to attend the Kermesse this year, and even persuaded us to donate a prize (one of my paintings) for the tombola to be held to end the event.
The programme for the day was packed with activities, starting at 9.30 in the morning with a mass and a guided tour of the abbey, continuing with the release of doves, and games for adults and children and ending with a tombola draw at five in the evening. The high point of the day was the cold buffet midday meal, consisting of dishes prepared by the members of the parish.
This year the Kermesse was held in the grounds of an ancient, partly-ruined abbey, providing ample space for stands offering drinks, crepes, second-hand books, clothes, and home-made cakes and biscuits. For each drink, crepe, etc. one paid a symbolic amount, and much friendly banter and even earnest conversation was conducted alongside the transactions. The weather was fine and everyone seemed to be having a good time.
The only drawback, if it can be called one, was the fact that the number of participants far exceeded expectations, and whereas tables and benches for one hundred guests had been prepared inside what had apparently once been the abbey’s refectory, over one hundred and fifty people queued up to partake of the food. There was quite a crush, partly because some people were apparently unused to the principle of taking something to eat and moving away to let others approach. Nonetheless, everyone displayed admirable forbearance and waited patiently or simply jumped the queue and went round to the other side of the table in the elegant and jovial way that is unique to French country-folk.
When we managed to find a place to sit together with our French friends we were surprised to find an elderly couple sitting quietly at our table with nothing to eat. They both appeared to be handicapped to varying degrees, and told us that they were waiting for the crush at the buffet to abate before they could approach it. They looked wistfully at our plates laden with food, and after a while, seeing that there was no progress, Yigal simply took the elderly gentleman by the hand, led him to the buffet, and steered him past the people standing there to the other side, where he could prepare plates for himself and his wife. The couple’s gratitude was touching, but it struck us as rather odd that the locals did not seem to have any concern for those among them who were weaker or incapacitated.
Feeling exhausted by our efforts and the need to speak in French, we went to the cake stand and bought something to have with our coffee when we got home. The stand seemed to be manned (womanned) mainly by English-speaking ladies, and the main topic of conversation was of course Brexit and its implications. We left the abbey just as the musical interlude (an accordionist playing French tunes) was beginning. On the drive home through the verdant countryside we felt glad that we had made our own small contribution to cordial international relations.