The first time it happens I’m hovering in front of the glass cabinet at a patisserie in Chamalieres-sur-Loire, deciding between vanilla and chocolate éclairs. I order both. The red-headed woman behind the counter has a lace-edged apron tied around her waist. She narrows her eyes, tongs poised above the perfect pastries at the front of the cabinet closest to me, and asks: “Tu es Belge?”
“Non, je suis néo-zélandais,” I say.
Her smile brightens and her tongs move closer to her, towards the largest, freshest éclairs at the back.
The second time it happens the French barman at the camp ground near Lyon (www.cosycamp.com) nods towards our red number plates (which scream ‘lease car! Tourist!’) and asks: “Tu es Belge?”
“Non. Kiwi,” I say searching his face for a reaction.
“Kiwi. Trés bon!” he says, beaming, and starts talking in French about – I think – the Rugby World Cup. I lose him after ‘All Blacks’ but keep nodding, glad I’d passed his mysterious nationality test.
By now, even if I was Belgian, I wouldn’t admit it for fear of offending someone. Google isn’t much help; all it tells me about Belgian travellers is that they like a good discount coupon and are fabulously self-sufficient, neither of which are traits that 1) are offensive 2) are obvious from looking at a person.
And then it happens a third time. We are on our way from Provence to Tarragona and take whatever off-ramp is next on the A9 for lunch. Our Peugeot wagon circles the narrow streets, led astray by the GPS’ idiotic instructions. We’re hungry. A bare-chested man looks over his balcony, smoking and shaking his head as we pass by for the third time. I wish our plates weren’t red.
I’ve got that feeling you get in a place you’ve just arrived – that fun things, delicious things, exciting things are happening just around the next corner; that you are moments away from one of life’s most amazing, unexpected experiences. Eyes wide with hope, we take a left at the merry-go-round being erected in the village square, barely squeezing past an ancient blue Renault whose driver (black and white plates) thinks it’s Le Mans. But it’s not Le Mans, it’s Bessan – an agricultural village in the Hérault region of southern France, population under 5,000. Bunting waves its colored fingers over the narrow streets, and a sign let us know the fete locale begins this afternoon at 5pm. It’s 2 o’clock. The streets are deserted. We pass the man on the balcony for the fourth time. He shoots a thick stream of smoke towards us and laughs.
“There!” I shout pointing to a sign with an arrow: Café-de La Gare. Jez swerves down the street, heading – I think optimistically – towards fun, delicious, exciting things. Just around the next corner.
A cluster of leathery, shirtless men sit outside the restaurant, smoking and drinking glasses of beer. Their hazy eyes follow our car as we pull into a parking space beside the terrace. The children are grizzly and hot. We sit down under the red canvas marquis, red bunting flapping limply overhead. We are the only customers. A brusque looking woman of about fifty nods and sets a stack of menus down on the ancient table.
“Only pizza,” she barks and then gently strokes each of the girls’ cheeks with a rough hand. “Beaux enfants,” she says in a gentle voice that hides a story.
Captivated, we order two pizzas and she marches off to the kitchen with her notebook tucked under her arm.
Of course it is right at that moment the girls need the bathroom. I drag them inside past the locals who lean against the bar drinking pastiche from small tumblers. A long, low whistle is aimed either at me or our matronly waitress. I feel like a sparkling coin in a cage full of magpies. A dark-skinned man with a black pony-tail stumbles out of the unisex toilet, the door banging open behind him. He’s still doing up his trousers, his bare belly dangerously close to his cigarette. I smell burning hair.
“Maori haka man, Mummy!” Hazel says pointing at him. Georgia looks at me and grins.
Thank god he doesn’t speak English. In fact he’s so squiffy he doesn’t even register we’re there. Curiously, the bathroom smells lovely and there’s a stack of crisp white hand towels individually rolled up on the bench. A spray of lavender in a delicate vase sits on the shelf above the basin.
“Darling, you’re sunburnt!” I say to Jez as we sit back down.
“You are too,” he says stroking his two-week-old beard.
“What? I don’t know how,” I say, “I’ve been using cream…”
He cracks up laughing: “Do you think it might have something to do with the reflection from the red tent overhead?”
A tall guy with a beard – and finally, a shirt – lopes towards us, smiling at our laughter, and moves one of the parking barriers a few centimeters.
“You speak English?” he asks.
“Oui,” I say.
“There is a bigger bathroom inside the restaurant, you will like it much better.”
“Thanks very much, thanks,” I say, realizing I’d dragged the girls through the grungy public bar and that the restaurant entrance was just around the next corner.
Our waitress sets two pizzas, so huge, before us that I immediately reassign one to tonight’s dinner. The children’s pizza, Ch’ti Biloute (apparently the local equivalent to ‘hey mate’) drips with delicious stretchy cheese, sweet tomatoes, jambon (ham) and olives. Ours, le Jardinière is laden with tomato slices, wedges of fragrant mushroom, whole artichoke hearts, red onion, gooey cheese and sweet red peppers on a perfectly thin crunchy-chewy base. It is the best (most fun, delicious, exciting and unexpected) pizza I’ve had in years.
It happens when we are at the counter paying the bill:
“You are Belgian?” the guy with the shirt and beard asks.
“We’re from New Zealand,” I say.
“Really? You know, I was in New Zealand just three months ago,” he says.
“You were?” I’m skeptical. And then he reels off place names like a salve to my far-from-home heart:
“Rangitoto. Paihia. Pakiri. Auckland. Corommandel. Wellington. All of these places I went in my campervan. I was on, what you call it, a working holiday visa, but I didn’t stay, I came back here to help Mama and my cousin with the restaurant.”
Mama is our waitress, now smiling at her boy (whose name is Julian) and at us. The cousin (singlet, tattoos, backwards baseball cap) bounds over at the mention of New Zealand:
“You are staying with famous rugby man from New Zealand, Don Williams?” he asks.
“Don? No, I don’t know Don,” I say.
“Ali Williams, the ex-All Black?” says Jez. “I think he plays for Toulon. Isn’t that near here?”
“Oui, that’s him! Any family of Ali Williams, is family for Café-de La Gare.”
“No, we’re not related to Ali Williams. But I did meet him once,” I say (by ‘meet’ I mean chatted me up next to the pool table at Crow Bar once).
Julian looks disappointed. “So, how did you hear about Café-de La Gare then?”
I haven’t the heart to tell him we were just passing through and his was the only joint with the doors open. We pay the bill and say goodbye with kisses and promises to review on TripAdvisor. Mama kisses our children on the forehead and hugs them to her bosom.
“No worries, Kiwis,” says Julian. “At least you’re not Belgian!” He smiles a huge smile and disappears off out to the kitchen.