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Torfaen Tales

Flying The Flag

Having enjoyed several holidays in France, Glyn decided to join the Town Twinning organisation. Aberpont was twinned with the rather grand-sounding town of Marsac-sur-Chalamont, which had a similar population of around 50,000 and was located in central France. Glyn had never been to that part of France, but after all, that was part of the attraction of joining the town twinning - the prospect of cheap holidays in the other town.

Glyn was a widower in his fifties. His wife Marcia had passed away just over two years previously after a lengthy battle against cancer. The three children Marcia and Glyn had borne in their early twenties had all flown the nest: Gordon worked in forestry in Canada, Harry was a chef in Perth, Western Australia, and Hannah worked in property development in London. Glyn had sold the family home and moved into a modest bungalow on the outskirts of Aberpont. Having finished renovating his new home, he found himself at a loose end and in need of a new interest. Hence the town twinning group.

He attended his first meeting on the second Tuesday in March. He opened the door of the community hall and strode purposefully across the floor, taking an empty seat on the end of the second row. Although the meeting was scheduled to start at 7.30 he was surprised that so many were already in attendance at 7.20. He was also surprised that he recognised so few faces.

The man seated at the table at the front of the hall slipped his spectacles to the end of his nose and peered over them at Glyn.

“Good evening. Do I detect a new member?” he enquired.

“Er, hello,” said Glyn, rising to his feet. “I’m Glyn Williams. Yes, I’d like to join, providing that’s all right with the rest of you,” he added with a nervous grin as he glanced around the assembled group. He felt like an awkward schoolboy again.

“Certainly,” said a woman in the front row, rising and turning in his direction. “We’re always on the look-out for interested parties.”

He recognised this woman. She was Mrs Ellis who ran the florist’s shop in Market Street. She scuffled among some papers and leaned back to pass Glyn an application form.

“Just fill this in and give it to me later.”

“Right,” said the man at the table. “It’s half past seven, so let’s commence. First item on the agenda is the programme for the visit of the Marsac group in July.”

Glyn remained silent until they stopped for a cup of tea at the end of the meeting. A lot of what went on was beyond his comprehension, in fact some of the members may have been speaking in French for all he knew. He wondered whether the town twinning had been a good idea after all.

Maggie Ellis took Glyn under her wing, gave him a cup of tea and introduced him to the rest of the members, some of whom he recognised but didn’t know very well. He supposed that the years he’d spent looking after Marcia had limited his contact with fellow townspeople, along with the fact that he worked in Cardiff.

He left the meeting with a task to perform before the next meeting in two weeks’ time. Everyone present had been given something to do. Glyn had to make a list of local places that may be of interest to the visitors.

He tried to look at Aberpont through the eyes of a visitor, but the exercise was a bit disappointing. It wasn’t the most exciting of towns, and he wondered what the French had found of interest on their previous three visits. The museum wasn‘t bad, full of interesting stuff with a local flavour, but no doubt the visitors had been there before. Clearly Glyn had his work cut out.

By the time the next meeting came round, Glyn had only one suggestion to make, and he was none too sure it was much of an idea.

“What about a walk along the canal, with a meal at the Three Horses?”

Silence. Then George Handforth, the President, spoke. “Hmm. That’s not something we’ve done before. Not a bad idea, I suppose.”

Glyn felt relieved that his idea hadn’t been completely shot down in flames.

“What about wheelchair access?” queried Gethin Thomas, the Secretary, who worked for the local Council.

“Um, I hadn’t thought about that,” replied Glyn. “I think most of the canal path is tarmac, but I’d have to check.”

So that was the result of the second meeting. Glyn was to plan a precise route, and to check accessibility for those in wheelchairs. And he also had to check wheelchair access and the number of diners that could be accommodated in the Three Horses, and to make a provisional booking.

Time went by, and plans for the visit of the French group gradually took shape. Glyn was pleased with the way his proposed canal walk and pub meal had developed. He had done a trial run with the Committee which had met with faint approval. The plan was for the group to join the canal at the picnic ground near the end of the park, take a leisurely stroll for about two miles to the Three Horses, then after a meal in a marquee in the grounds, walk another mile to Pont Quay which had been developed as something of a tourist attraction. A narrow boat hire company operated from Pont Quay, and the group would then spend an hour cruising along the canal on a narrow boat and partake of afternoon tea on their return to Pont Quay. A coach would collect the party and return them to Aberpont late in the afternoon.

Other events for the French visit were a welcome party with cheese and wine at the museum, a visit to the town market to sample local produce and where the town’s choir would sing in Welsh accompanied by a harp, a visit to the craft centre at nearby Llancarra, a day’s shopping in Cardiff, and a farewell party at Gethin Thomas’s farm.

Twenty-three visitors were expected, and arrangements had been made for them to stay with members of the town twinning group and a few other willing townspeople. Glyn had been allocated a couple in their sixties, Gerard and Sylvie de Chastonay. Like Glyn, they were new to town twinning, and although they had been to England and Scotland before, this was their first visit to Wales. They sounded terribly grand, and Glyn had gone to great lengths to make his spare bedroom, and indeed all of his bungalow, as tidy and well-appointed as he could. He bought new bedlinen and towels, and planned what he would cook for his visitors. All of the town twinning group had been brushing up on their French, and Glyn had been doing some extra work on his language skills with a DVD which he bought. All in all, he found the town twinning group was proving to be quite an expensive hobby.

July 17th arrived, and the coach bearing the French party drew up outside the Civic Centre just before two in the afternoon. The Mayor of Aberpont stepped forward to greet his opposite number, the gold chains around his neck glinting in the welcome sunshine. The local press photographer captured the event for the front page of the local paper.

Glyn was introduced to Gerard and Sylvie de Chastonay. Gerard was short and balding, a grey-haired look-alike for Danny De Vito but with a French twist. Sylvie was taller, thin and plain, with quite a sour expression on her face.

“Bienvenue,” said Glyn by way of welcome. Bienvenue a Aberpont. J’espere que votre voyage a passe sans probleme.”

“Merci,” replied Gerard de Chastonay. Before Glyn knew what had happened the Frenchman had embraced him and kissed him on both cheeks. “Yes, we ‘ave a good journey. Thank you. May I present to you my wife, Sylvie.”

Sylvie de Chastonay bestowed a sweet, girlish smile upon Glyn which made her seem far more agreeable.

Gerard then launched into a speech, presumably in French, which left Glyn sadly lacking in comprehension. An awkward silence followed.

“My apologies,” said Gerard, crestfallen. “My Welsh speaking must be not as clear as my English.”

Glyn was shot through with a pang of guilt. “I’m sorry, Gerard. I don’t speak Welsh. Very few people do in this area. Nowadays they teach Welsh to the children in school, but when I was young that was not the case.”

“’Ow strange,” mused Gerard. “All the signs on the roads are written in both languages, yet few people understand the Welsh. ‘Ow very strange.”

“Yes,” chuckled Glyn. “Bit of a waste of money, I suppose. Anyway, my car is just over there. Would you like to drop your luggage at my home and freshen up before the welcome party?”

“Thank you, Glyn. That would be good,” said Sylvie.

“We have luck with the weather this time,” said Sylvie as they drove out of town, observing the blue sky. “Marielle Dominie told me of the terrible rain during the last visit.”

“Sorry about that,” said Glyn. “I hope we will be more lucky. The forecast is good for this week, but you can never tell …”

The wine and cheese party at the museum was scheduled to start at five p.m. It was nearly three before Glyn and his guests reached his bungalow.

“How charming,” enthused Gerard as they drew up on the expanse of gravel beside Glyn’s house.

“I’m glad you like it,” said Glyn, warming to his guests’ praise.

They made all the right noises as he showed them their room and gave them a tour of the rest of the house, such as it was. They seemed not to have noticed that the garden was something of a wilderness. Glyn had no idea where to start, it had taken him all of the fifteen months since moving here to get the inside of the bungalow looking better than before. The previous owner had been an elderly lady who had gone into a home. It had taken him practically all of fifteen months to get rid of the smell of her cats, and he hoped the de Chastonays couldn’t detect any odour.

After a sandwich and a cup of tea it was time to depart for the welcome party at the museum which was due to start at six p.m. The Mayor made another speech, followed by a lengthy discourse from George Handforth. Part of his speech was in French, and Glyn couldn’t help but notice the pained expression on the face of Gerard and several of the other French visitors at one point.

Finally the formalities were over, and the drinks were poured. Someone had managed to get hold of a few bottles of white wine from a small vineyard near Abergavenny, but most of the wine was from other parts of the world. There was a good selection of cheeses including several locally produced varieties.

Glyn made a point of pushing himself to talk to as many people as possible, to play his part in making the visitors feel welcome. After a while he joined a lively group of which Gerard and Sylvie were a part.

“Tell me something,” said Glyn, taking Gerard to one side. “When George Handforth was speaking French, did he get something wrong?”

The expression on Gerard’s face told Glyn he had hit the nail on the head.

“I tell you later,” whispered Gerard.

Glyn took a couple of bottles from the table and circulated, topping up glasses.

“This local wine, it is not bad,” said one of the older French ladies whose name Glyn did not quite catch. “And this cheese with the little mustard seeds, it is excellent!” she added.

The party continued until nearly ten. Glyn took care to drink no more than one glass of wine as he was driving, but clearly Sylvie and Gerard had enjoyed sampling the offerings. Sylvie looked a little flushed and much less stern as they made their way to the car.

Back home, Gerard confided that George Handforth had indeed said something very impolite in his attempt to speak French. “I look at Rene Albert,” said Gerard shaking his head and rolling his eyes. “I think he is going to burst with laughing. I know if he laugh, everyone else will, and it will be very bad. But lucky I don’t look at any of the others, and we manage to keep quiet. George, he mean well, but he speak French quite badly.”

“We British people aren’t very good at languages,” admitted Glyn. “As you saw earlier, most of us Welsh don’t even speak our native language.”

“Ah, but this town twinning, somehow we build the bridges between our countries despite the difference in our languages,” said Gerard, ever the diplomat. And on that note the three retired for the night.

In the morning Glyn greeted his guests bilingually. “Bonjour. Bore da.”

Gerard and Sylvie looked a little puzzled, but then echoed his greeting. On the way into town, Glyn searched his memory for any Welsh words he knew and tried them out on Gerard. To his surprise, the Frenchman knew practically all of the meanings and came up with other words that Glyn didn‘t know. Sometimes Gerard would muse over a Welsh word, mumble to himself in French and then translate into English. Glyn felt humbled at Gerard’s superior linguistic ability.

The building in the centre of town that housed the indoor market had been hung with Welsh and French flags, and the choir was already in fine voice by the time the visitors gathered at 10 a.m. Special stalls of Welsh and French produce had been set out for the occasion, and some children from a local school had dressed in Welsh costume and were distributing paper daffodils as the season for the real thing had long since passed. Glyn thought it was all a bit shabby, particularly the obvious number of empty stalls in the market, but the visitors seemed to accept the event with gracious good humour. Glyn wondered whether his own group would be as patient if the French group were to put on such a lame display.

Afterwards, Glyn took Gerard and Sylvie to his favourite café for a welcome coffee and then they took a walk in the park. He drove his visitors on a tour around the area in the afternoon, as there was nothing further organised for the rest of the day.

Sylvie admired the view from a vantage point at the top of a hill. “So lovely. Very different from England.”

Glyn had studied up on his local history for the visit, and pointed out the crumbling remains of slag heaps and blast furnaces which dated back over a hundred years to a time when the landscape had been heavily industrialised with the production of coal and iron ore. Back at home, he gave the de Chastonays a copy of a book by Alexander Cordell.

“It’s fiction, but well written and captures the spirit of the past. I hope you enjoy it.”

That evening he prepared a simple meal of ham and salad which they took into the garden. Glyn felt ashamed of the shabby state of his garden furniture, and indeed his overgrown garden, but Sylvie and Gerard, he had come to realise, were very patient with his shortcomings. Including his very average cooking. At least he couldn’t do much wrong with a salad.

“This brown, er, substance,” said Sylvie, poking a heap of Branston pickle which he’d placed decoratively on the ham. “What is it? It is quite nice.”

“Thank you, Sylvie,” said Glyn, glowing. “It’s called Branston pickle. It’s a very English thing, although we also eat it in Wales. My friend Mrs Jordan made it.”

Glyn felt mentally exhausted by the time the meal was over, for Gerard and Sylvie questioned him closely on the differences between English and Welsh cuisine, and the delicacies of Wales. Glyn had to admit he’d never tried lava bread.

The weather that evening was glorious, and they sat on in the garden until the spectacular sunset dimmed from red through shades of blue into total darkness, pinpricked with tiny stars.

The following morning a crowd comprising the French visitors and the Welsh hosts gathered outside the Civic Centre and poured onto two coaches. They travelled ten miles or so to the village of Llancarra, just a little blip in the road. Past the only village shop they took a turning on the left and continued through idyllic farmland to the Craft Centre. The visit went very well, with displays of pottery making, carving of Welsh love spoons, and weaving from Welsh sheep’s wool. Glyn thought perhaps some of the French visitors didn’t quite understand the significance of the carved wooden love spoons. Nevertheless they opened their purses and wallets and bought souvenirs with abandon. What with lunch at a nearby country pub, the whole day slipped away pleasantly.

The following day, Thursday, was designated for the walk along the canal. Glyn felt a twist of anxiousness in the pit of his stomach. What if it rained? What if the visitors found the outing boring?

Thursday dawned clear and sunny. Glyn packed cool drinks into a small back pack, and made sure Gerard and Sylvie were suitably attired for the walk. They drove to the car park in the town’s rather attractive park where they met up with the rest of the group.

They headed out of the park, down to a rather attractive picnic ground situated in a grove of trees. There they joined the canal path.

“This is ver’ nice,” pronounced Gerard with a broad grin. “Of course we have canals in France, but they are quite large and straight. This is quite charming,” he added, glancing around in approval and snapping a few shots with his camera. Quite a few people seemed to be doing the same.

As the group walked along companionably Glyn relaxed and got into the spirit of things. The canal took numerous twists and turns, offering a variety of views. At one moment they were encapsulated in a tunnel of dense forest, then the next bend would offer a spectacular view over lush farmland punctuated by stark mountain peaks in the distance. Mother Nature was in full bloom that day, with everything from wild roses in the hedgerows to delicate yellow iris grouped elegantly at the edge of the canal. The French visitors were enchanted by the groups of fuzzy, brown-striped ducklings paddling desperately after their mothers.

Just as they were starting to feel a little weary, the Three Horses hove into view. The well-manicured lawn with its picnic tables, and the marquee set up at the far end, looked quite impressive, and Glyn felt relieved. So far, so good.

The lunch was excellent. A buffet was laid out in the marquee, and the group heaped their plates and made their way outside to the picnic tables as the weather was indeed all that could be hoped for: sunshine pouring down from a clear blue sky, and just a hint of a refreshing breeze.

Reluctantly they dragged themselves away from the Three Horses and walked the next mile to Pont Quay, a marina situated on a broad bend in the canal. The visitors eagerly clambered into a large narrow boat fitted out with seats, and seemed to enjoy the commentary as the boat chugged a mile or so along the canal, passing under quaint hump-backed bridges. At another broad point the driver skilfully turned the boat, and they headed back to Pont Quay for tea and cakes at the café. Then at five o’clock the coach collected the party and returned them to Aberpont.

In the car on the way home, Sylvie and Gerard were full of praise for the day’s outing.

“Oh, Glyn!” said Sylvie, “This ‘as been the best day! The weather - superb! The walk we enjoy very much. The lunch we enjoy even more. And the boat trip! And the tea at the café! I will remember this day always!”

Glyn felt buoyed up with his guests’ praise. With such agreeable weather, Glyn stopped at the supermarket on the way home and stocked up on provisions for a barbecue that evening.

“Ah, supermarche!” sighed Sylvie de Chastonay as she surveyed the aisles. “The same thing in all the countries of the world, I think.”

The evening was one of mellowness and deep discussion, particularly as Glyn had availed himself of a bottle of Welsh whisky and Gerard fancied himself as a connoisseur of whisky following a previous holiday in Scotland. He pronounced the Welsh variety comparable with the best of the Scottish, but that was at the end of the evening when he seemed particularly mellow.

Luckily an early start was not required for the coach trip to Cardiff the following day. Glyn enjoyed his trip to Cardiff, approaching his visit to the city from a tourist’s point of view. They explored the castle and some of the shops before making their way to Cardiff Bay where the group had lunch combined with a cruise of the bay. They were collected by the coach and were back in Aberpont by six o’clock, with an hour or so to get their glad rags on for the final night of the visit: a party at Gethin Thomas’s farm. Gethin lived about five miles out of town on a sizeable property with a large barn which he had prepared to hold a party for the French visitors.

Gethin had organised a band which belted out an interesting variety of Welsh country rock, and there was much dancing and merriment.

By this stage of the visit everyone was feeling very relaxed in each other’s company. The drinks flowed freely, and when it was time for the speeches everyone seemed ready to say a few words.

Rene Albert took charge of the microphone to make the final speech thanking the hosts for their hospitality. He spoke at great length, and read a piece in Welsh that Gerard had prepared. The Welsh hosts nodded politely, for few of them had any understanding of their mother tongue.

On the way home, Gerard was beside himself with laughter. He and Sylvie were giggling like teenagers in the back seat as Glyn drove the few miles home.

“Oh, Glyn! Tonight I have been very bad!” confessed Gerard. “The speech which Rene Albert make, I am inspired by the very bad French which George speak. So I write a speech in Welsh which is really very, very rude. Which say Rene Albert do many bad things with the … with the wife of the Mayor of your town … and the best thing is, nobody speak Welsh, nobody understand!”

By this point tears of laughter were pouring down Gerard’s face, and Sylvie was gasping, struggling to catch her breath between fits of laughter.

Glyn had to admit this was very good, and joined the French couple in their hysterical laughter. By the time they reached home they definitely needed another drink to round off a most enjoyable evening. After all, Glyn as the driver had abstained from drinking during the evening so he really deserved a glass or two of finest Welsh malt whisky.

Glyn was sad to see his guests depart. He took them to the Town Hall to join their coach which was due to leave at 2p.m. on Saturday afternoon.

Gerard and Sylvie repeated over and over how much they had enjoyed their visit and his hospitality.

“Promise me,” said Sylvie, clutching his hand, “Promise me that you will come next year to our town and stay with us so that we can show you much hospitality.”

“Don’t worry,” said Glyn sincerely, “I’ll be there! It’s been great getting to know you both. And here’s a little something to remind you of your visit to Aberpont,” he added, handing over a bottle of Welsh whisky.

Glyn felt a pang of sadness as the French coach chugged its way out of town. He lingered with the group of hosts in the afternoon sun, glad that he’d persevered with the town twinning group. Most of all, he was looking forward to the trip next year to Marsac-sur-Chalamont, which he felt would be most enjoyable in the company of his new friends, Gerard and Sylvie de Chastonay.

By Karenne Griffin

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