We went to Toulouse for the August 15 Assumption holiday as we do every year. Yes that would be the celebration of the passage of the Virgin Mary into heaven still officially marked with an official day off in a country that is officially secular, but never mind. When we checked in for our own mini ascent into the heavens, we discovered Air France had put us all in different rows. Still, it meant La Fille couldn't see her plane-phobic father's white knuckles or hyperventilating even before we'd reached the runway. "What's that noise?" he all but shrieked at one point. I said: "It's the plane landing." He's the person who runs amok in those plane disaster films and has to be wrestled to the ground by the heroine hostess, slapped around the face a couple of times and handcuffed to the toilet door.
To me Assumption in Toulouse is a very French annual ritual. An indeterminate number of people all known to each other for many years and their families converge on the home of a couple of mutual friends and their two teenage children. The dramatis personae varies from year to year as some drop out and some drop in and friends of friends are invited along, but the core group is made up of usual suspects - one of them the Frenchman - most years. Our hosts welcome all, including those they barely know and those they have never laid eyes on, with limitless warmth, generosity, patience and good humour. Their sons are equally heroic; thrown out of their rooms and forced to sleep in tents in the garden without so much as a Kevin the Teenager scowl, sulk or grumble. At one point the number present was expected to reach 31 humans, two dogs and a rabbit. Thank heavens the copulating slugs didn't show this year, nor several of the expected guests, but even it was a lot of tomates provençales to rustle up.
Here's a list of some of the subjects touched upon over lunch/dinner/aperitif/breakfast during our six-day stay.
*Was a famous French cartoonist fired from a satirical magazine for suggesting President Nicolas Sarkozy's son Jean would "go far" because he was marrying a Jewish heiress being anti-Semitic or exercising freedom of speech?
*Did Britain or America do anything to help European Jews during World War Two?
*Who was worse: Hitler or Stalin?
*Did Ingrid Betancourt suffer Stockholm Syndrome during her six years in captivity in the Colombian jungle? Why did she look so healthy when released when six months before she was reportedly at death's door.
*The Vagina Monologues
*What is making more and more young Muslim women adopt the hijab or headscarf?
*Are women still treated like walking wombs?
*Should action to save the planet be collective or individual? Why should I stop driving when the oil companies do nothing for the environment?
*Why is Britain obsessed with America?
*Why has the swimming pool gone green and why isn't the tonne and a half of environment unfriendly chemical poured in it working?
*Who made The Bayeux Tapestry? Did they have an agenda?
*Why is it bloody freezing when we are more than half way to Spain in August? Is there a hope in hell it will be warmer tomorrow?
*Is it OK to be left-wing and buy the new album by Carla Bruni, aka Mrs President Sarkozy, if the proceeds are going to charity?
There was some shouting and some table-thumping, due more to over-enthusiasm and over-indulgence than anger, and some truly Monty Python "What have the Romans (for Romans read Britons/Americans) ever done for us?" moments. All in all it was mostly good humoured unlike a few years ago when the only subject of argument all week was the European Constitution and the 'Yes' and 'No' camps were so irreconcilably divided I was convinced certain friends were heading for the divorce courts.
I added my tenpenny worth over 1066 and all that and other subjects and admit to thumping the table (once), but nobody was being clever-clever and anyone who didn't feel like joining in didn't have to and nobody minded. There was much hilarity, much wine drunk and much food eaten as well as the usual singing competition. As happens without fail every year in Toulouse, somebody pointed to me and said: "Beatles" to which I, as I do without fail every year, made my excuses, went to the loo and never came back. Some of the French contributions beggared Anglophone belief such as a song containing a line that appeared to translate as: "I dream of spending my life with my arse in the air". Apparently it is a double-entendre about fantasising over air-stewardesses, but clearly something is lost in translation. (Anyone who thinks I'm being unfair about French lyrics click here and read down to Jacques Brel. Thank you Jaywalker.)
The really heated exchanges were saved for a table tennis tournament organised by the youngsters who came up with a devilishly clever timetable of matches that ensured every game involving an adult took place after lunch. "Don't you think that's a little unfair?" asked our hostess, after she lost. "You didn't have to drink," was their response. Game, set and match to the boys.