So deciding to call in on Le Mans on Thursday 28 June was a spur-of-the-moment decision, mainly based on the fact that it was approximately midway between our previous spontaneous port of call, the brandy-and-history-infused Cognac, and Dieppe, where we needed to be by Saturday for our pre-booked ferry ride back to England. Oh, and according to Google, it also had that comparative rarity in France, a scène ouverte, or open mic, on that Thursday. So those things alone decided it – our visit was nothing to do with the world-famous Le Mans 24-hour auto race or the classic car event that, conveniently for us, fell either side of our visit, leaving the city and the campsite we stayed at comparatively empty and hence far more enjoyable.
The scène ouverte itself was an unknown quantity for me. It turned out to be at an extremely characterful bar, Le Pilier Rouge, in the old part of the city, frequented, it appeared, by the local bohemian crowd. From that, I assumed – completely wrongly as it turned out – that there would be an expectation that I would at the very least introduce my songs in French, and preferably sing them in the native tongue too. So I practised my introduction in Franglais, and, with Carol’s help, even came up with a translation for a line of my song ‘Before You’ – ‘Il y avait un temps – avant toi’. In the event, however, most of the others – all of them French – sang a mixture of French and American/English songs, and the English version of ‘Before You’ proved the hit of the evening, particularly with Juliette, the host, who came up to me after my set and asked if I would be OK with her singing it as it was her style of song completely, and in fact it was ‘the best song in the world’! I was of course thoroughly delighted with the idea of my song remaining behind me in Le Mans. She then asked me if I would bring the lyrics round to her the next day, to her fabulously bohemian shop, where Carol and I would also have lunch with her and some of the others who’d been there that evening – including the lovely Didier (who protested that his ‘Anglais est une catastrophe’ but went on to converse with us in charming and perfectly understandable English!), together with a French teacher and a local GP.
Both the evening of music at Le Pilier Rouge and the lunch at Juliette’s amazing Aladdin’s Cave of a boutique and art shop, above which she also lives, in a building which dates back to the Middle Ages, were incredible and gave us a wonderful taste of life as it is really lived in France. If you’ve only ever heard of Le Mans in connection with cars, then you’re missing out on its really beautiful and unspoiled old quarter dating back to before the time of Henry II (who was born there), and consisting of old timbered buildings and narrow cobbled streets. And inhabited by some of the nicest, friendliest people you could ever hope to meet. Despite none of us speaking the other’s language with any degree of fluency whatsoever, the universal language of music brought us together, and one way or another we managed to cover a wide variety of topics and establish the roots of what promise to be lasting friendships.
And should you ever happen to pass by Le Pilier Rouge on a Thursday evening and hear strains of a French-accented version of ‘Before You’ drifting out, please pop in and say bonjour to Juliette and Didier from ‘les petites Anglaises’!