Keen to meet people and enjoy the French countryside, Annabel Simms joined a group full of surprises
I first got into bird-watching in France by stopping on a country road in England and following the RSPB signs welcoming the public to a site in the New Forest. Watching the chicks in a falcon’s nest come into focus, oblivious of being spied on through a telescope 300 metres away, was both exciting and moving. I resolved then and there to find out if I could join a bird-watchers’ group when I got back to Paris. It would be a good way to meet more French people, especially French men.
My experience of tracking down such a group was to be fairly typical of most of my attempts to get beneath the surface of French life. That is, it took months, not days, to uncover the necessary information, but turned out to be peculiarly satisfying when I had succeeded. My most memorable weekend excursion with the CORIF (Centre Ornithologique de l’Ile de France) was to a place about 60 km north west of Paris. On the Friday afternoon of a bank holiday weekend, I joined a small group of total strangers, instantly recognisable by their anoraks, outside a Métro station at the edge of Paris and squeezed into a waiting car. Our destination was a ‘gîte rurale’, which turned out to be a small farm in the middle of nowhere.
Night had fallen and it was raining when we finally pulled up in the farmhouse courtyard. I looked round at my fellow-birdwatchers as they emerged from various cars into the light of a cheerless dining room which contained an empty fireplace. They were of all ages and both sexes but they all looked the same to me in their shapeless sensible clothes. No one was particularly forthcoming – the French do not chat easily to people they do not know – and my heart sank at the thought of a long weekend stuck in their company. Our leader, a gentle young teacher called Pascal, had forgotten (forgotten!) to buy any wine and the food was so awful that I silently thought that it was worse than England: everything, including the taste-free Golden Delicious apples, had come from a supermarket and was cold and damp. I produced the bottle I had brought with me and had to watch helplessly as it traversed the group of around 20 people. Most of them gratefully poured a little into their glasses, so that by the time it came back to me there were two mouthfuls left. The crowning misery was having to go outside into the steady drizzle for a solitary but hurried smoke, before rushing off again in the cars to go and watch some invisible night birds. Our communal dormitory was above the stables and I was sure I wouldn’t get a wink of sleep. But in fact the sense of other sleeping bodies nearby and the unfamiliar smell of horses drifting sweetly upwards sent me straight off.
We had to get up horribly early the next morning. It was still raining. We spent hours tramping through wet woods and squinting through binoculars at the elusive birds, sometimes chatting, but mainly in a surprisingly companionable silence. The shared misery had created a bond that would normally have taken weeks to forge, and the faceless multitude had sorted itself into individuals whom I found myself actually liking. Everyone assured me that I wouldn’t find a shop open on a holiday weekend, even if one existed in those rural parts. But I did find one and bought another bottle of wine. Several of the others bought one too, so we had quite a respectable collection of about six bottles between us. By late afternoon I had given up all pretence of being interested in bird-watching and asked one of the car-drivers to take me back to the gîte, so that I could ‘try and get a fire going to welcome the others.’ Several people elected to come with me, leaving the hard core of serious bird-watchers to struggle on with Pascal. Thus early were the sheep separated from the goats.
On arrival at the gîte I was confronted by a stack of damp logs and the expectant looks of my fellow skivers. City-dwellers all, not one of us had a clue as to how to light a fire. Summoning a vague memory of watching my brother-in-law lighting a fire in his Oxfordshire cottage, I insisted on placing the smaller sticks underneath the damp logs, not on top as my helpers unanimously urged me to do. After a good half hour, a wisp of smoke rewarded our efforts. By the time the rest of the group arrived, cold and wet, they were greeted by a splendid fire and a table hospitably decked out with the six bottles. As for the food that evening, it turned out that two people were in the catering business and brought out from their cars enormous trays of delicious quiches, which went straight into the oven.
‘I never thought you could really get a fire going,’ Monique, who later became my friend, murmured in my ear. The crowning triumph was the group’s response as I got up to go outside into the rain for my lonely smoke: ‘Mais reste, reste avec nous, il y a déjà un grand feu dans la salle’. Looking round the table at the laughing faces, rosy with good food, wine and the atavistic warmth of the fire, I could not imagine a greater contrast with the silent, faceless group of the night before. At last the French were behaving as they were supposed to do, chatting, laughing, eating and drinking and generally enjoying life. I said as much to Pascal, who responded, ‘Ah, mais les ornithos ne sont pas les Français comme les autres’ (birdies are not like other French people).
I have found this to be true. Not only do they not care very much about creature comforts, they also do not care about status or hierarchy. I soon discovered that in bird-watching circles it is not done to ask people what they do for a living. The elected President of the CORIF is a young man who works in the kitchens of a Paris restaurant. I remember him with gratitude because he lent me his waterproof on one of the first excursions I joined. The most selfish person I met was another young man, a doctor, who did not lift a finger to help while the others were clearing up. I knew that one of the regular members was a Paris taxi-driver because he always turned up in his taxi with his dog, and in time I came to know other doctors and teachers as well as pensioners, secretaries, researchers and cooks.
The CORIF is unusual among French countryside groups in that its members are a balanced mix of both sexes, of every age and social background. There is a small number of paid officials but the excursions are organised by volunteers from among the members. They are responsible for arranging everything, including shared transport in each other’s cars. It seems chaotic but it always works, with a minimum of fuss, rules and expense. It costs 20 euros a year to join, plus the cost-price of the excursions, which is always very low. At different times I have stayed in and around the Ile de France in a farm, a school, a monastery and a château, with varying degrees of comfort, but the arrangements have never broken down and I have always ended up enjoying myself. I can’t say I have learned much about birds and nor have I met the dreamed-of Frenchman, but this is largely my own fault. And I am never the only one who is not a serious bird-watcher.
Centre Ornitholoque de l’Ile de France (CORIF): email@example.com
Annabel Simms is the author of ‘An Hour From Paris’ (Pallas Athene, £12.95)