Brian Is In The Kitchen

1st August 2022

Travelling with a donkey, as Joseph and Mary learnt the hard way, makes for slow progress and uncertain timing. There is often no room at the inn.

I did not make advance reservations, principally because I couldn’t have been bothered. But I can also retro-fit the logic of this decision: it’s impossible to say where Kaïcha and I will be in five days’ time, as it depends on her mood, my mood, the temperature, and the people you might meet who may slow you down or speed you up, for all the right reasons.

In short, making reservations with donkeys makes donkeys of us too.

When I rang the lady who runs the Colonie d’Espoir in Laveyrune (Ardèche), I was amused by her scandalised tone that I should be ringing so late in search of accommodation for tomorrow.

After the scolding, she confirmed that she did indeed have room for me, and the Queen of Donkeys. That’s a reasonable opening poker hand, for those keeping count.

The French ‘colonie de vacances’ system, known as Les Colos, is a national effort to give children educational holidays (fun, food, accommodation, learning) during the summer period, especially when parents’ work commitments make it difficult. Colos are for everyone, with subventions coming both from government and employers to enable an affordable cost. Think Gaelteacht, multiplied by drama school, multiplied by amazing weather.

This was all now beginning to make sense. The lady who runs the Colonie d’Espoir is also a teacher, used to bringing order to adolescent chaos.

When I arrived to Laveyrune, a ribbon village of unconscionable length given its tiny size, she explained the order of things: the times we would dine, and the logistics of man and beast, all with great clarity. She had thought it through.

I then learnt we would be three people staying that night, in a place which can hold sixty. I had a dormitory of six beds all to myself, and a view both of setting and rising suns. That telephone tone, be it instructional or reprimanding, was even more charming, in retrospect.

My two fellow-guests at the Colonie d’Espoir arrived an hour later. The two lovely young women from St Etienne were all chat – about the day, the walk, Brexit, Britain (the French are obsessed by She Who Rules The Waves, and are always hopeful that an Irishman will join in the baiting).

Finally, we introduced ourselves. When Sophie discovered my name, she giggled – and then explained.

The French Department of Education, I was told, educates all French kids in English using the same books, the same teacher scripts, and all with the same underwhelming result.

One of the very first English school texts, at entry level, poses a philosophical question: Where is Brian? The response to this question is known by most all French people between 20 and 40 years old.

‘Brian is in the kitchen’.

This has become the object of some derision and fun over the years; its tone being so patronising and limiting. Indeed, the Brian lesson is the subject of a famous piece of standup comedy by Gad, which I recommend (here, subtitled in English). Any Jennys will be as equally excited as I was.

That evening, we assembled for dinner at 19h, to find a simple yet perfectly laid table with rosé and red wine of the Ardèche. Our hostess had changed both her outfit and her manner – she was now a proud chef and warm maitre d’.

It was as if she started as teacher, and became Mammy.

The starter was a wonderful salad, all sourced locally from the fields of Laveyrune. I know how important vegetables are for walkers who exist on carbs, she said. And boy was she right.

It was the main course that fascinated me most: local pork sausages (the long slender kind) on a bed of Le Puy lentils. The pork came from the farm next door, and we could see it from our seats. I commented that this was indeed hyper-local fare, which produced an animated speech from our hostess.

I’m not an eco fanatic, she said; I’m not even eco at all. I just believe in common sense. Turn off the light when you leave the room; don’t let the water run when you wash clothes in a sink; wipe the jam-spoon with bread so the jam is used up; use food that’s produced nearby…

I liked her core point: that being eco is actually about being efficient – a message best framed around common sense rather than climate psycho-drama. This avoids that we talk the emotion of sustainability whilst doing nothing about it.

I was liking this lady more and more, and secretly knew I would have enjoyed hours in her company, chatting about life. She had a forthrightness that I immediately respond to; a sincerity to her words which meant that their meaning stuck.

The next morning, we were served a classic French breakfast (dominated by bread and jam, bien sûr) which almost passed by, unremarkable. Until she came to us, bade us good morning, and detailed the making of her three jams. One, Sophie remarked, had the consistency of caramel – and so we wanted to know all about it.

It was jam made with l’églantier, or wild dog roses, reputed to be a great bearer of vitamin C. The jam was deep brown, nothing like the delicate pink rose petal. Its texture was glistening and magnificent, and its taste was perhaps similar to chestnut. I loved it, and unwrapped my picnic cheese and butter sandwich that she had prepared for me, and poured some l’églantier right on top. This unnerved my breakfast companions, but our hostess gave a nod of approval.

Look for it on the chemin, she said. It’s everywhere. And I did. And it is.

Kaïsha was already set up before breakfast – after six days I’ve got the process down – and I was on my way before 8.30am.

Some kilometres down the road, I came to a road crossing in which three choices could be made.

A curious road sign clarified the position. All choices pointed to Laveyrune.

I smiled, and chose to see this as a metaphor for what I had witnessed in her colony of hope.

This intelligent, independent and industrious woman, applying common sense to the world around her, and creating experiences for walkers and kids that truly are of the highest order: she is the future. And the world needs to turn in her direction.

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