Many years ago I had a hideaway in Andorra. High up in the Pyrenees. It was the day before Christmas Eve. I was leaving Andorra with a big French truck full of 17th and 18th century Spanish antiques: huge refectory tables, coffers, chests, a polychrome screen, beautiful carved saints, and more.
The French driver, Jean Claude, had a big open smile and many teeth missing. He was tough and wary. Our agent had arranged for the French customs to put a seal on the truck at the border. That seal had to remain intact when we got to the channel port for the ferry to England.
We left Andorra in a blizzard with the snow chains on. Jean Claude, an expert driver glided out from the Pyrenees onto the French plains. I was enjoying myself, I was having an adventure.
It was snowing but the journey was uneventful except for a wonderful lunch and even better dinner that evening at a big Routiers place. We slept in sleeping bags in the track that night. Very snug and warm. In the morning after breakfast we were on the road again in the snow. Jean Claude had a radio on all the time, playing pop music. Top of the pops in France at that time was a tango.
We experienced another memorable lunch, then hit the road again. Then… disaster!
Something had gone wrong with the rear of the truck. It was jerking around. Jean Claude was very gloomy. He could nurse it to the channel port, but they wouldn’t let us get on the ferry. It was better we make for Lille, where he had some friends with a big garage and a hotel. Considering the cargo, it was of paramount importance to get the truck locked up and secure. There were six more truck drivers in Lille, JC knew some of them. they all thought it was very funny for him to be travelling with a young boss. We had a great evening, great dinner and lots of wine.
Madame, was Belgian lady, of big proportions, aloof but warm. About 1 a.m. I thought I’d put my nose outside to get some air. It was lightly snowing and there were fresh car tracks in the snow. I followed them with my eye. Down the street there was a police car pulling away from a café or a bar. I went to have a look.
I opened the door, and there I was… in.
Everybody with no place to go in Lille was in this bar. They were drunks, petty gangsters and ladies of the night. What appeared to be the son, a big lad, was mopping up some blood from the floor and sprinkling some sawdust on it. Madame, a large lady with red hair, was sitting behind the till. There was a drunk leaning on the bar beside me, smoking, with cigarette burns in his jacket. He was in another land. The Tango I’d been listening to all through France came on the jukebox. The drunk beside me straightened up, he walked very carefully to Madame, nodded his head, he put out his left arm, she rose and joined him.
They danced a tango, an incredible tango. He’d forgotten he was drunk, she’d forgotten her years and rheumatics. In their heads they were young again and beautiful. It was spellbinding. I was transfixed. In that old and worn Tango, they retained their humanity and dignity. Time slipped away, and I was watching two beautiful people dancing the tango.
I was celebrating the real Governor’s birthday, in the right place. Amongst the kind of people that he mixed with and cared about. The record stopped. The drunk gestured her with his right hand to sit down, she nodded back and went back to the till and her misery and memories. He joined me again at the bar. I congratulated them and asked them to be so kind to have a drink with me. In silence they did. I finished another cognac, wished everybody bonne Noel and left.
Walking back in the snow to my hotel, and the warmth of my new, but temporary friends, I had tears in my eyes. In that bar in a backstreet in France, I felt nearer to Christ on his birthday, than I would have in the greatest cathedral in the land.
Happy Christmas everybody, Happy Christmas.