Petanque and Pink Paper


High in the mountains of La Balagne in northern Corsica, the only people in a hurry are reckless Italian tourists in sports cars. In the timeless village of Ville Di Paraso, life continues at a pace dictated by the heat of the sun and the ripening of the olives, just as it has for centuries. In the late afternoon the sun throws long shadows across the main street; deserted save for a lone dog and the bar owner, Bartoli, enjoying a quiet siesta in the shade.

The peace is shattered as I emerge from the epicerie clutching a bottle of pastis and a faded postcard. The elderly owner is still grumbling loudly in Corsican as she follows me out onto the street. I have fallen foul of her by attempting to purchase her last pack of loo rolls, which she wrested from me at the counter with a torrent of excited chatter. I surrendered instantly, but apparently I am still not to be trusted, and my pigeon French doesnít seem to work here.

Bartoli is awoken by the noise, and shouts across the street to her as he beckons my boyfriend and I across to the bar. She clenches her fists, wild strands of steel-grey hair escaping her bun as she shakes her head at me. "Pah!" She waves her hand dismissively and disappears inside the shop. He shrugs apologetically.

We take a seat on the terrace, which reaches out over a sheer drop. We are separated from certain death by nothing more than creaking plywood, but the view across the Regino valley towards the distant coast makes the risk worthwhile. As the light changes, the jutting ridges of granite glow pink. The wild beauty of the valley stretches out into the distance, scattered with olive, fig and chestnut trees and fragrant scrubland. When Napoleon was in exile, he claimed that he could still smell the sweet scent of the maquis.

The afternoon is turning to dusk, and Bartoli points inside to show us that he has lit the pizza oven. I sigh helplessly. The Corsican proverb is true: what doesn't kill you makes you fatter.

He calls across to four villagers playing petanque, and asks if we can join the final game whilst we wait for our food. We take our places on opposite teams, and I sense that I am considered to be the short straw by my boys. They take the game seriously, but luckily I donít let them down. The gentle chink of boule on boule echoes around the square, and everyone cheers as my team score the victory point.

As we sit back down to our pizza, a ball of fury hurtles across the street towards me. It is my nemesis, Madame Papier Toilette. She shouts a torrent of abuse at Jean, one of the petanque players, jabbing the air furiously in my direction. Jean cowers and makes little protest in return. The others laugh as she retreats towards the bar, still grumbling. Her friend waits at the door, eyeing me up, stern-faced, arms folded tightly across her floral apron. She tuts in disgust at us as they disappear inside.

The men smile, apologetic and embarrassed. As no one on the terrace can speak either French or English we are left forever in the dark as to the reason for her wrath, and after a bottle of wine it doesnít seem to matter anymore.

When we leave there is a choir practice starting in the church. We stumble down the hillside in the inky dark under a milky wash of stars, and the other-worldly sound of polyphonic singing follows us into the valley. It is likely that this same pulifune will have been sung in these mountains for hundreds of years. In Paraso there is a reassuring sense of things as they have always been.

Just as I spot a shooting star arcing overhead, my boyfriend brings me back down to earth and reminds me that we still have no loo rolls. Which in turn gets me thinking: why is French toilet paper always a nasty shade of pink?

M Huggins

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