Last Sunday I slipped off to Salis Beach in Antibes armed with a sun chair, a wide-brimmed straw hat, an umbrella and a grand big bottle of Evian water. Being aspirin-white and freckled, I sat on the beach in the shade of my little blue umbrella and watched the French relax.
The first thing you notice are their figures. They are all skinny winny. The French beach is such a fat-free zone, there is not even a slight rippling of cellulite, yet they eat Camembert and croissants. ‘Tis just not fair.
As the hours passed, I watched as two tall, thin Africans mingled with the crowds in an effort to sell massive beach throws in the boiling heat.
God, ‘twas a terrible tedious job altogether and the French seemed ‘très’ surly toward them, waving them off with exaggerated puffs and pants.
I didn’t see the lads sell one thing in two hours. This of course brought on an enquiry: how the feck do they survive? Sure, I wasn’t long finding out. The older lad – in his 60s, I’d say – came toward me, wearing a bright, jangly yellow and black costume, and wanting to know if I was interested in buying a beach throw.
As it happens, I was. The towel I had wasn’t big enough to keep the sun off my beautiful body so I bought a throw for €20. It was a bargain.
Well, me having a bit of aul French and he having a good smattering of English, didn’t we get talking. This lad was from Senegal in West Africa, a place I have never been. However, I know a little about Senegal because I once had a lovely friend, a chef called Babacar from Dakar who has since passed away from cancer.
Babacar taught me how to cook Thieboudienne, a famous Senegalese dish of fish and rice, in his grandfather’s flat in Clapham in London.
Now that was over 30 years ago. I spoke no French then and the grandfather, an ancient, elegant-looking man called Oumar, only spoke the Senegalese language of Wolof. It was a day I never forgot.
While Babacar was cooking with an amazing spice called Netetou – a fermented bean that doesn’t smell great but is really delicious when heated – he was also giving me a lesson in Senegalese history, translating his grandfather’s life story.
Now, before I continue, I must warn you that this is a deep pit I’ll be digging into for you, the pit of politics, one I rarely enter, but guess what? Let’s fall headlong into it.
On the wall of that tiny flat in Clapham hung a photo of his grandfather in a khaki military uniform wearing a fez hat.
When I asked Babacour about it, the granddad’s eyes welled up. He had been conscripted from Senegal, a French colony, as a soldier to fight during World War II, when the French recruited 179,000 troops, known as Tirailleurs, from Senegal. Not many people know this, but five Senegalese battalions no less, served on the Western Front, including Oumar’s.
When I was growing up you never saw a picture of a black soldier during either of the world wars. Sure that says it all doesn’t it?
Following liberation in the autumn of 1944, General de Gaulle decided the Senegalese Tirailleurs should return home as soon as possible. But a fight soon surfaced regarding their army pay and Oumar and his fellow soldiers quite rightly refused to board ships for home until they were paid what they were owed.
The arguments continued at their camp and on the morning of December 1, 1944, French troops, three armoured cars with mounted machine guns and even a US army tank surrounded them in a place called Thiaroye. According to Oumar, the French army arrived heavily armed to impose “order” on them. Sure all they had, he said, were a few knives and clubs.
The soldiers opened fire on the unarmed Senegalese soldiers and many were killed. Sadly, we are all only too familiar with this in Ireland.
Imagine, to this day, the French will still politely tell you that these infantrymen and former prisoners of war had staged an armed revolt.
Oumar insisted, however, that the French Army committed a massacre. I believe him. This man witnessed the brutality with his own eyes. ‘Tis a savage story.
Anyhow, back to my friends selling their wares. The older man in his 60s, whose name was Moussa, introduced me to his 21-year-old nephew Karim, who had recently packed a tiny backpack and boarded a wooden boat at the Senegalese port of Mbour to get to France for a better life with the uncle. Why? It seems the poverty in Senegal is ferocious and Covid finished them off altogether.
Fuel and water shortages, and a faulty engine, forced Karim’s boat to beach in Morocco. Two of his old school pals drowned.
Karim eventually got to Antibes, where six of them are now sharing one room. Not great. When I think of the Senegalese contribution to France’s past, it’s hard to believe that these dignified, peace-loving, proud people have ended up dismissed and neglected by the French – self-proclaimed fecking socialists no less. The mind boggles.
On Wednesday I traipsed down to a restaurant in the local village. Well, nothing prepared me for it.
You might remember that last week I reluctantly, even triumphantly, proclaimed I was becoming a Francophile. Well, I’ve changed my mind completely. Twas a wagon that served me.
She came toward me with a big, heavy, chalk menu blackboard and plonked it on my lap no less. Hard to read from that angle I can tell you. What was on it? The same aul shite. Salad Nicoise. Salad chevre. Steak frites.
I ordered a salad. Well, when she arrived back and banged the plate on the table, you’d think she had thrown the stuff on the plate with a shovel. I looked at it. Tinned tuna, tinned green beans, an aul chopped egg and some canned anchovies. There is a crisis in French cooking for sure.
She saw my expression of disappointment. Then the mouth farting began.
Jesus, that Gallic shrug of hers did my head in, if you only saw the twitch of her shoulders, the shift of her head, the raising of her palms in the air like a mad woman. Customer service, how are you.
There was a Scotsman sitting in the corner getting pissed on Ricard. I could see why.
“Did she just tal ya ta leave?”
“Yep,” says I.
“Och, ma wife told me the same thing last Tuesday.”
More about that adventure next week.