Thursday, 1 November 2012

Jour des conscrits 2012

One of the things I most enjoy here in Montmelard is the strong sense of belonging I have found. The feeling of being almost part of the landscape - our house built of local stone, with beams of locally felled trees, nestled in a valley where it has stood guardian for over 300 years. History has played itself out here, the lives and stories of the people who have grown up, raised families and seen out the later years here as well as the external forces that have moved through these hills - German soldiers and local resistance forces, people passing on the grande route across France in Victorian times and, now, people like me who come from further afield looking for something we have been unable to find elsewhere. This feeling of being both individual - through living a life that makes me feel more the person I am, whilst at the same time realising that I am a very small part of something much bigger and certainly more durable, was never stronger than on May 5th this year during my Jour de conscrit.

The history surrounding this special day dates back several centuries and, apparently, started in the Beaujolais region just south of here. To combat the stress of leaving home and family to go off and do national service (which could last anything up to 7 years), the young men would gather the night before departure to sing, eat, dance and make merry at a banquet in their honour, lasting the whole night long.

National service is no longer part of French life but having an excuse for a good knees up is. So, in these modern times, the stress of conscription has been replaced with the stress of facing another landmark birthday whilst the solution remains the same - dance, laugh, drink and spend time with friends and loved ones. This year, 2012 - the class of 2, sees those of us with a birth year ending with a 2 carrying on this tradition.

The day is not all hedonistic revelling though, in fact the first activity is the laying of a wreath at the war memorial to honour those from earlier 'class of 2' who gave their lives in times of conflict. These ties that bind stretch back into distant times and as I look around at the younger members of our class I am comforted knowing that they will be carried forward long after my time has run its course. The oldest class of 2 member is 90, the youngest barely three days old, all of us now linked by an invisible thread. My thread spins its way back to England and snares my school friend Brenda and her mum both of whom class of 2 members (though they have only recently become aware of this). As Bren has recently bought a house in the village she is entitled to participate in the proceedings.

From the moment we begin to decorate the trailers that will be transformed into chariots fit to bear royalty, til the moment we roll home from the festivities, the atmosphere is one of pure celebration. Celebration that we are alive and appreciating what life has to offer. After the laying of the wreath, our 'chief', Pauline, invites the villagers to a Vin d'honneur in the village square. Once the day's drinking is under way,  it is time for the parade along the street: confetti filled air, klaxon deafening even the already deaf, bawdy songs that the locals are born knowing and the rest of us mime along to - it is a riot. The tempo is slowed as we await photos but a joyous ''whoop', as we launch our hats into the cool May air for the final group photo, signals party mode to recommence.

7 courses later the meal comes to an end and the dancing takes centre stage. These people know how to party and young and old alike take to the dance floor. For those who prefer to remain at table, the opportunity to guess the weight of the sausage, provides alternative entertainment.

As I sit writing this 5 months later, my hat, resplendent with red ribbon, hangs on the wall behind me, a constant reminder of a wonderful day. I don't want to wish my life away but I can't wait to turn 60 and do it all again. 


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