The restaurant is far out of town, nestling in the curve of the road, as it dips down to the river, before turning sharply back on itself and climbing uphill. There has always been a restaurant here, as long as anyone can remember – it was possibly once a coach house, and probably also a mill, catching the torrent as it tumbles down towards the sea. On arriving for a special Valentine’s Day dinner, some of the men gathered at the entrance and around the bar, catching up on local happenings- a road accident or a new building, as well as the recent births and deaths. The sticky smell of Pastis pervades the corridor to the dining room and by eight o’clock, this is packed, long tables uniting families who have been celebrating such events together for generations. The fairy light flash on and off and a couple of garlands of rosy-red Valentine hearts deck the small dance floor.

They are all here – François, the plumber, a huge bear of a man, with the shoulders of a colossus, and fiercely black, bushy eyebrows and Alain, his barrel-like stomach covered by a bright red waistcoat; he runs the olive mill, and  is president of the local Comité des Fetes. Monsieur and Madame Vincent ( he was deputy-mayor some years ago), sit at the top of the table, then Sylvie and Michelle, both cashiers at Carrefour, and Sandrine, the hairdresser, her own blonde tresses falling in playful curls for this special evening. The men wear jeans, some t-shirts, even short sleeved shirts (although it is only February), but the younger men are in designer shirts, fashionably black. The girls have made an effort – some in denim hot-pants with high leather boots, others in flimsy organdie tops, over jeans or skinny trousers, a few in mini-skirts, some of the older women are in sensible ankle-length jersey skirts, and there is just one would-be evening dress, layers of black georgette fluttering around the wearer’s knees, and a few tassels swinging as she walks.

The DJ, a solid, chunky-looking man – with a ‘day-job’ in the council’s sanitation department, presides over a long table at the side of the dance floor. His equipment is stacked up in front of him, an electronic key-board and a huge round microphone obscuring half of his face. Most of the diners order the ‘Menu du Jour’, some drink wine, but many just water, and the music, which has been a pleasant enough background of French chansoniers’ songs, warms up,- the beat faster, the songs louder. Some can’t hold back for another moment and make determinedly towards the dance floor – Monsieur Vincent, in a sombre grey suit followed by Madame Vincent in a frilly grey top over a long skirt lead the way. Surely they’re not going to dance the salsa? But yes, they’re off, feet tapping and shifting, arms marking the beat, hips thrusting and rolling. The next song’s there – and they’re jiving. The dance floor is busy by now, the plumber, the decorator, the baker and their women – not a beauty among them – but watch them dance! It takes a tango to quieten things down, the couples sliding up to each other, body on body, hands stroking and holding fast.

Hors d’oeuvres interrupt this and the DJ respectfully lowers the volume, puts on a CD and wanders among the guests – “Was the music too loud?”. “Are you enjoying the music” and ‘Bon Appetit”. However, he hardly gives them time to nibble the salad, pick at the charcuterie, down a glass or two, and he’s back- and hang-on, this is different. This is from North Africa, it’s straight out of the casbah- and Julie, the baker’s assistant, in black georgette, is tying a scarf around her hips and off she goes, striding up onto the dance floor, to start belly-dancing – rolling her hips, shaking and shimmering. This black-eyed beauty must be from a souk in Tangiers or the harem of a prince from the Maghreb, but no, it’s Julie from the boulangerie. Still quivering she goes into a back-bend, further and further back, until she’s flat on the floor, and then in two seconds, she’s back on her feet, wiggling and shaking. She’s surrounded by a bevy of young men, all jiggling and jogging on the spot while several of the other women join in, but they can’t compete. However, they do experiment with a novel bum-to-bum routine while the music builds to a crescendo, everyone clapping and shouting and stamping and suddenly, it’s all over – and everyone is back to the tables for their Boeuf en Croute.

Madame Lebruin, the retired optician, a tall, bulky woman with thick spectacles in heavy frames walks slowly alone to the dance floor. She has a long, heavy grey skirt and top, and sensible shoes – and she’s ready for the music. The rhythm starts tentatively and she marks time like a bull in the arena, the heavy legs trampling the floor, lit from above with multi-coloured bulbs. The DJ knows his stuff –  he can tell – she wants to TWIST! As Chubby Checker’s 1959 song bursts out, Monsieur Lebruin swallows the rest of his broccoli and joins her, and he’s followed by the rest of the table, and more and more of the diners are there, twisting on one leg, then the other, shoulders rotating back and forth while they sing along. They know every word and every song and demand more until exhaustion takes over. Desert is ’The Chef’s Surprise’ – a feathery sponge filled with red berries and surrounded by dollops of whipped cream. But the dancing will go on – to about two o’clock in the morning – although the small party at the bar may increase for coffees and cognac and others escape outside for gasps of nicotine. The DJ had already made an announcement – the next ‘occasion’ will be the ‘Carnival’ evening in two weeks time – and they’ll all be there.

14 February 2011